In pursuit of trying to find out the truth I read the AQA syllabus but unfortunately it is not what I would call clear http://www.aqa.org.uk/qual/pdf/AQA-3271-W-SP-10.PDF, however if you look at the example paper for the one exam you seem to have to sit, it certainly seems to have quite a lot of conventional music (or would do if they weren't still trying to get copyright clearance for it). http://www.aqa.org.uk/qual/newgcse/pdf/AQA-MUS-SQP-11.PDF
I am now more sceptical than I was about the alleged decline in standards, whilst very different from my O Level music I am not convinced that it looks easier per se, and certainly looks quite a bit more interesting. One thing you can point to is that the specification says you have to perform at Grade 4 standard, in my day you got out of one of the 3 written papers by using your Grade 5 score. In practice, in my boys' Grammar school, only 2 in my O Level music class didn't turn in a Grade 5 score in lieu of the 'write down what we have just played' paper, which was generally viewed as the harder of the 2 you could get out of.
I am also slightly nonplussed with letters like this (from the Times)
My son is predicted an A* this summer for music GCSE. He has studied music for 5 years, plays in orchestras and ensembles at county level and yet cannot read a note. He is a percussionist, able to read rhythms but not pitch and doomed never to get a tuned percussion part! My question has always been: “What are schools teaching in the three-year run up to the start of GCSE?” Who decided notation was surplus to requirements for a musician?
My son will not be doing A-level music because he is not skilled enough. He will do A level music technology where notation is once again superfluous.
Surely anyone capable of writing a whinging letter to the Times is capable of finding a book / website explaining musical notation for the dear child?
Having said all this, I find the idea of not teaching music notation at some point in a GCSE course rather perverse.
(edited to correct links)