GCSE changes bring UK differences under devolution

Exam hall The changes come in from September in England

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Education Secretary Michael Gove's decision to change GCSEs in England means pupils around the UK could be sitting different versions of them.

From September, students starting GCSEs in England will take their exams at the end of their two-year courses.

At the moment, they can take GCSEs "in chunks" over two years - but Mr Gove believes this makes them less rigorous and narrows down what is studied.

But in Wales, schools will be able to choose between the two styles.

In Northern Ireland, no decision has been taken to change its system - which allows exams to be taken in either fashion - but an announcement is expected soon.

Pupils in Scotland mainly take Standard Grades although this system is due to be changed in 2014. A small number take GCSEs.

Resits limited

Mr Gove has pledged to improve the exam system in England.

He has said the trend for taking exams in modules - and for resits - has led to a downgrading of standards because it encourages teachers to "teach to the test" rather than give pupils broader knowledge of a subject.

Resits are also being limited under changes coming in from September.

Because power over education is devolved to the UK's nations, Mr Gove's decisions directly change only what happens in England, but indirectly, they may lead to changes elsewhere if the nations decide to follow suit.

Start Quote

Students shouldn't be continually cramming to pass the next exam or resitting the same test again and again simply to boost their mark”

End Quote Department for Education

This is what happened to an extent with tuition fees - after the decision was made to raise fees in England up to a maximum of £9,000, universities around the UK changed their fees for students from other parts of the UK.

A spokesman for the Department for Education said: "It's down to the Welsh and Northern Irish administrations to decide how to run their education systems - we do what we think best for English students.

"We make no apology for breaking the constant treadmill of exams and retakes throughout students' GCSE courses - school shouldn't be a dreary trudge from one test to the next. Sitting and passing modules has become the be-all and end-all, instead of achieving a real, lasting understanding and love of a subject.

"Students shouldn't be continually cramming to pass the next exam or resitting the same test again and again simply to boost their mark."

It will be the responsibility of the exams regulators of England, Wales and Northern Ireland to make sure GCSEs awarded in each nation are of an equal standard.

Modular advantage?

Jerry Jarvis, the former managing director of the Edexcel exam board, believes students stand to do better under a modular system - although he thinks the differences will be small.

"I would expect students taking modular exams to do better. Being able to take an exam in small chunks should in theory help someone to do better because of the revision," he said.

"It's not going to make a huge difference if you take advantage of the other things that contribute to improvement - for example teaching to the test, direct support that teachers are given."

Mr Jarvis, whose book Cheats, Choices and Dumbing Down was released recently, said: "Wales has its own [exams] authority and Northern Ireland too and as a consequence, inevitably, some variations are going to occur.

Start Quote

There is no evidence that a linear exam would be more rigorous than a modular exam”

End Quote Brian Lightman Association of School and College Leaders

"As citizens of this country we move from region to region and in principle I don't think it's a great thing that there are regional differences."

The Welsh government has said schools in Wales can continue to enter pupils for modular exams and that some have already said they will continue to do so.

But it is looking at the issue in a review of qualifications which will report in November.

A spokesman said: "Ministers are committed to not making significant changes to GCSEs until after the outcomes of the Review of 14 to 19 Qualifications are known, unless urgent action is fully justified.

"However, where immediate action is felt necessary, we will take proportionate action."

Any decisions would be based on evidence, he said.

The Welsh exam board WJEC, whose exams are taken by students in England and Wales, is to produce both linear and modular GCSEs.

Last summer, it received about 350,000 exam entries from England.

Students from England will continue to be able to sit WJEC GCSEs - but only linear ones, taken after two years.

The board says it will maintain standards across both types of GCSE and has published guidance for schools.

A spokesman said: "The subject content will be the same for both linear and unitised options, ensuring consistency in the standards of the programmes of learning.

"We award all units on the basis of the standards of achievement expected from learners on completion of the course; the same standards are applied irrespective of when the units are taken."


Brian Lightman, the general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, says there is no evidence that linear exams are more rigorous than those taken in modules - and that schools in England should be free to choose which exams their pupils take.

"I suspect in Wales that most [head teachers] will carry on doing what they think is right for their students," he said.

"This is an imposed thing in England. We think it should be left as a choice."

Mr Lightman agreed there was a danger that some qualifications might be seen as better than others.

"It's a risk but we would just have to keep an eye on that. It's an opinion that the secretary of state has expressed but there is no evidence that a linear exam would be more rigorous than a modular exam. There are modular degrees after all - and even PhDs.

"The regulator will have to make sure they are similar."


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  • rate this

    Comment number 270.

    Does this mean Mr Gove is more interested in testing than learning? All pupils are different. In some schools, top streams for Maths, are expected to only need a single year course after KS3 Sats to be able to gain a good grade at GCSE. The year after is usually taken up with either a more advanced course or one that focuses on a particular area of maths. Does he want to hold pupils back?

  • rate this

    Comment number 269.

    A linear exam system simply proves that a child can memorise and regurgitate information. A tough modular and controlled assessment approach ensures that knowledge is embedded and understood and can be applied in practical terms. If teachers are only teaching kids to pass tests then that is the real issue here, if the teachers are doing their job properly deal with that not change the system.

  • rate this

    Comment number 268.

    We are always bombarded with anecdotal evidence when it comes to these things. Everyone voices their solutions based on what they personally went through... Can we please see some evidence to support these major actions? Students have been treated as guinea pigs for decades now, and they have suffered as a result. We need stability, we can't have successive government changing things constantly.

  • rate this

    Comment number 267.

    "They do require problem solving skills and thinking under pressure."

    Nothing compared to verbal exam. Don't you agree.

    "I just don't think that presentation and verbal skills have to be fully developed in 14 year olds"

    Do they don't, however under pressure they develop much quicker. And bright pupils stand out much quicker from those destined for routine and non-exiting jobs

  • rate this

    Comment number 266.


    What, you mean like the modern system that makes it utterly impossible to compare the qualifications of applicants fresh out of school with super-duper grades and no knowledge and those who went to school when grades still meant something?

  • rate this

    Comment number 265.

    The problem with qualifications is they have no bearing on real life skill and do not truly reflect a persons intelligence.
    Give the kids access to a few different resources and give them a task they have never seen anything like before. The ones that best put those resources to use and come up with an answer are more useful to cognitive industry than those that can remember pi to x decimal places

  • rate this

    Comment number 264.

    Is this really for the benefit of those being educated or, just like the last governments, just to make the statistics look good?

  • rate this

    Comment number 263.

    If you wish to edit exams to stop “teaching to test” then would you please make it so that our lives weren’t some what dependent on these tests.

  • rate this

    Comment number 262.

    marie 69
    Most sensible comment I have read all year.
    You should be the education minister.

  • rate this

    Comment number 261.

    As a recently retired teacher of 32 years experience, I applaud this move.

    Modules taught in year 10 are forgotten by the end of the course and endless resits inflate grades and lead to unrealistic aspirations for further study.

    I'm not a Tory, but the Coalition is on the right track here to introduce more rigour at GCSE.

  • rate this

    Comment number 260.


    What fairly and with due care and attention to every pupil? It would never happen and it if could it would take forever and cost billions.

  • rate this

    Comment number 259.

    Several years ago I wondered why the number of university students was rising, but school rolls, and therefore the number of school leavers, was falling. How was it possible to get a greater catch from a smaller pool? I asked the then-principal of a large, old university if this meant that standards were falling. He looked at me as though I were quite mad and said "Of course they are!"

  • rate this

    Comment number 258.

    I have a phd so I'm aware of that. My point is that a verbal exam would have been unnesscessary at the age of 14 when I was still trying to learn the subjects/the basics! Non-verbal exams aren't just memory. They do require problem solving skills and thinking under pressure. I just don't think that presentation and verbal skills have to be fully developed in 14 year olds.

  • rate this

    Comment number 257.

    #236 Nobody should be able to get 100% for an exam.
    Depends on the subject and the exam.
    In a maths exam there is little room for opinion and you can cover everything that is asked.
    'With ruler and compasses, prove Pythagoras' theorem.'
    If you can do it, and don't lose 5% for handwriting (do they still do that?) you get 100%. No probs (or Dym Sweat as they say in these parts).

  • rate this

    Comment number 256.

    Pay peanuts and you get monkeys

  • rate this

    Comment number 255.

    #167 - what rot. My wife is a science teacher. 2.1 for her first degree, postgrad qualifications too (and this was back in the mid 80's). One of her colleagues is a biochemist and has a PhD. Another has an MEng. They are there because they want to teach, not because they couldn't do anything else. They've all had prior careers in industry, and went into teaching from choice, not necessity.

  • rate this

    Comment number 254.

    For my finals at Glasgow Uni, I had two 3 hour papers on Weds, Thurs, Fri and Mon, Tues, Weds, (Thurs off) and one more on Fri of the following week. No course work, no continuous assessment, just 39 hours of exams. Great fun. Everyone loved it. Nervous breakdowns were really quite uncommon, in the circumstances.

  • rate this

    Comment number 253.

    People say you shouldn't just teach to the test. In an ideal world I would agree with that, but in the current "blame the teachers" climate, where results and league tables are all-important, that's exactly what's going to happen. When the National Curriculum was invented in 1988, I assumed there would be one National Exam, set by one Board. But no, competition seems to have remained.

  • rate this

    Comment number 252.

    Incredible! But nothing more than I've come to expect from Gove - what a waste of space he is.
    We have a system that is basically sound, but needs some attention at the margins (the real worth of some subjects is questionnable). At least it's uniform across the UK.
    What are we going to get? A system that makes it impossible to compare job applicants qualifications. Great improvement, thanks Gove!

  • rate this

    Comment number 251.

    Oh my, my last comment was rated down, I wonder how many who voted have ever been in a classroom and taught a subject.


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