Further revelations fuel GCSE fiasco, says chemistry chief


10 November 2009

Following last week's reports on examining boards flouting guidelines on science GCSEs, concerned teachers have passed to the chief executive of the Royal Society of Chemistry wider examples of national questions set on Thursday 5th November, for those pupils seeking to improve on their summer grades, describing them as 'pathetic' and 'appalling'.

Richard Pike said, 'The mathematics GCSE papers sat by 16 year-olds just a few days ago came under particular criticism, because for students moving on to A-level science subjects, there is then often insufficient grounding to understand the analytical aspects, and they struggle subsequently with subjects such as chemistry. 

'At the 'foundation' level, for those in the lower ability range, what was regarded as particularly galling by teachers was that the toughest single question (number 26 out of 29), which gave the maximum of 4 marks out of 100, asked merely for the surface area of a cube. Those completing this paper well can obtain the maximum of a grade C, which is considered to be a 'good pass' for the purposes of employment or going to university later.

'But, extraordinarily, using the same criterion, the toughest single question (number 9(a) out of 25) at the 'higher tier' level, giving again 4 marks out of 100, was exactly the same question. Doing well on this paper enables higher ability pupils to achieve an A or A* grade.'

The question ran: 'A solid cube has sides of length 5 cm. Work out the total surface area of the cube. State the units of your answer.' 

Dr Pike said, 'The correct answer can be arrived at within seconds, by noting that the area of each face of the cube is 5 x 5, or 25 square centimetres, and there are six faces to a cube, so that the result is 150 square centimetres.'

He added, 'Two important issues emerge from this. Firstly, schools in the independent sector are moving increasingly to International GCSEs (IGCSEs), which are seen as more demanding, and prepare pupils more effectively for A-Level. This is creating a two-tier system in education, since these are not recognised in the state sector, and is further attractive to schools because the curriculum is relatively stable, unlike for GCSEs where some observers see the incessant modifications as principally an income source for those involved in producing educational materials.

'Secondly, it raises the questions: Who is in charge of GCSEs? Who monitors? Who challenges? Why is it that, with dozens of agencies, authorities, boards, institutes and quangos, these extraordinary outcomes still surface?

Dr Pike said, 'Until we all get to grips with this fiasco, with some tough talking, this country risks sliding down the road to mediocrity'.

Related Links

Fine and ban wayward examining boards, demands RSC chief executive

An honest, independent regulator is also necessary to fix the broken education system, says Dr Richard Pike

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Mathematics - Foundation and Higher Tiers
See the questions from the Foundation and Higher Tiers papers
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