Plans for O-level-style exams to replace GCSEs


Michael Gove: ''We'd like to see every student in this country able to take world-class qualifications''

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England's exam system needs further changes, Education Secretary Michael Gove has told MPs, amid reports of plans to return to O-level style exams.

Mr Gove is reported to be preparing to replace GCSEs for England from autumn 2014 and also to bring in a simpler exam for less academic teenagers.

He was summoned to the Commons to answer urgent questions after details were leaked to the Daily Mail.

The Liberal Democrats are angry they were not told about the plans.

A senior figure told journalists: "We are very, very hostile to something that looks like it is going to return to the two-tier system of the past."

Mr Gove did not confirm the plans directly with MPs but praised many of the ideas, saying action was needed because the current exam system was letting children down.

"Children are working harder than ever but we are hearing that the system is not working for them," he said. "We want to tackle the culture of competitive dumbing down."

He said rigour needed to be restored to the system if England was to keep pace with educational improvements in some other countries.

Documents setting out the proposals for change were leaked to the Daily Mail and government sources told the BBC they were broadly correct.

The ideas, if introduced, would amount to the biggest change to the exams system for a generation. They are going to be put out for consultation.


This leak seems to have taken officials at the Department for Education by surprise.

The timing is certainly not good, with tens of thousands of teenagers in the final days of their GCSE and A-level exams catching headlines suggesting the government does not think their exams are tough enough.

If ministers decide to go ahead with the proposals and the time-scale given, they cannot afford to hang around. The design and approval of the new exams will take time and that will come after the consultation planned for the autumn.

In Wales and Northern Ireland, the devolved governments will need to decide whether to stay in step with the proposed changes. They could continue to let their schools choose GCSE qualifications from the exam boards, which are private companies.

The plan is for students to begin studying what the leaked document says will be "tougher" O-level style exams in English, maths and the sciences from September 2014. They would take their exams in 2016.

Less academic pupils would sit a different "more straightforward" exam, like the old CSE.

Labour's education spokesman Kevin Brennan told Mr Gove such a move would take the exam system "back to the 1950s".

"GCSEs may well need improving, but a two-tier exam system which divides children into winners and losers at 14 is not the answer," he said.

The Liberal Democrats said the plans appeared to set too low an aspiration for young people.

And a senior figure said changing the secondary exams system within two years could "lead to massive upheaval".

Curriculum scrapped?

GCSEs replaced O-levels and CSEs in the mid-1980s. Under the previous system, the more academic teenagers took O-levels while others took CSEs (Certificates of Secondary Education).

News of the plans come as tens of thousands of teenagers across England, Wales and Northern Ireland finish taking their GCSE and A-level exams.

Shadow Schools Minister Kevin Brennan: ''Michael Gove is in danger of completely ripping up a system that actually works''

The leaked document also apparently shows plans for the national curriculum at secondary level to be scrapped altogether, so that heads would decide what pupils should study.

Already new academy schools, which are state-funded but semi-independent, do not have to follow the national curriculum.

And the government is said to be planning to scrap the traditional benchmark on which secondary schools in England are measured - the number of pupils getting five good GCSEs (grades A* to C), including maths and English.

Schools would continue to be measured on the government's new benchmark - the English Baccalaureate - which counts how many pupils in a school have good GCSEs in English, maths, two sciences, geography, history and a foreign language.

Another change suggested is that one exam board would be chosen to set the O-level style papers for English, maths and science - with all pupils taking the same exam.

Currently, six exam boards design GCSEs and schools choose which board to use.

It is this situation which Mr Gove believes has led to a "race to the bottom".

He told MPs: "We want to tackle the culture of competitive dumbing-down, by making sure that exam boards cannot compete with each other on the basis of how easy their exams are".

The suggestion that that has happened has always been roundly rejected by the exam boards and by the previous Labour government.

Critics of the existing system point to the year-on-year rises in the numbers of pupils achieving top grades as a sign that GCSEs have become easier, but supporters say teenagers are working harder than ever and teachers are getting better at preparing them for exams.

The government had already announced that it wanted to shake up GCSEs by returning to the system where most exams were taken after two years, rather than in modules, and those changes were already planned to affect pupils beginning their GCSE studies this autumn.

The big teaching unions have echoed Mr Brennan's warnings about a two-tier system.

Russell Hobby, the general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, welcomed the move towards having a single exam board per subject, which he said was sensible and would "remove a lot of concerns about the system".

"But a move to a two-tier system does not sound a good step forward," he added, saying such a change would mean choices about children's futures being taken at too young an age.

As control of education in the UK is devolved, Mr Gove's plans are for England only. It would be up to Wales and Northern Ireland to decide whether to follow suit. In Scotland, pupils take Standard Grades, Highers and Advanced Highers rather than GCSEs and A-levels.

The Education Minister for Wales, Leighton Andrews, has said Wales will not return to O-level-style exams.


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  • rate this

    Comment number 981.

    Let's face it the whole idea is to have less kids leaving school with top
    grades. Maybe the exams have been dumbed down, maybe not. But if not so many young people make it to University I hope that the Tories have jobs available for them. And not work placement schemes at Poundland.

  • rate this

    Comment number 980.

    The problem is that the Education system stands for nothing. Exams are given only 2 years to do it. Too me thats not enough time to complete all your exams and coursework for GSCE. The other thing is that we're being teached how to pass the exam, we're not gaining any actual knowlegde, why in 2 , 3 years, we'll forget all we learnt in GSCE.

  • rate this

    Comment number 979.

    I fail to see how going backwards is going to improve standards and education for all our children. That will not encourage children to aspire to a better life, all we do is say to a certain group of kids - you are not good enough and set their aspirations for their future even lower. What happened to the ideologies of creating an environment where all of our young can flourish.

  • rate this

    Comment number 978.

    Long overdue. The O-A & CSE level system was initiated with an objective to give as many children as possible a decent education. With an erosion of morals in the 1980`s & an obsession with results (style over substance) An emphasis on boosting A grades meant a lowering of standards. Gadget knowledge is no substitution for basic English/Maths/Science. Maybe there is hope. Remove celebrities too!

  • rate this

    Comment number 977.

    "That is the biggest load of rubbish I have ever heard. We all like a dig at the government now and then, but suggesting they secretly might want us all in prison is pretty out of order."

    That's the power of the conspiracy hat! It lets me think the unthinkable! =D

    *doffs conspiracy hat*

    Nah, I keed. But they did sell lots of unemployed into slavery, didn't they?

  • rate this

    Comment number 976.

    958 Alan

    Your son must be delighted to know that if he does well in his GCSE's his dad will regard it as no achievement at all.

  • rate this

    Comment number 975.


    "The only reason that that paper looks hard is because of the imperical units. It's actually quite simple. None of the trig stuff is anything that wasn't in my GCSE paper (1998)"

    1998? You took your paper over a decade ago...have a look at a more modern paper. Its not so much that standard have gone downhill...more like fallen off a cliff.

  • rate this

    Comment number 974.

    I finished my GCSEs yesterday- and I found most of them tough and challenging. Not beyond being able to do the question, but hard enough that it challenged you. Of course people who do papers now will be better, you've had more life experience and learnt more than we have, but we're not stupid. Its only been one day after finishing my exams and I don't want to feel like a failure just yet.

  • rate this

    Comment number 973.

    Why are we all getting our knickers in a twist here. Exams are only a simple way of letting business decide who gets an interview, because all it does is measure how much a person remembered at one point in their lives. 90% of what we know did not come from school. The real point here is why so many kids can't read, write or do simple sums in their heads.

  • rate this

    Comment number 972.

    If anybody wants eveidence of the current education standards just read comment 932

    I really think we should actually have a debate on what the function of education is. Is it to enable people to have a valueless portfolio of exam certifiactes? Or is it ascertain the talents within the youngsters and thern point them in the right career direction be it acedemic or artisan?

  • rate this

    Comment number 971.

    Who are these idiots who think that there has been an explosion of intelligence amongst young people in the last 20 years? There hasn't. Deal with it. Exams have got easier. Deal with that too.

  • rate this

    Comment number 970.

    I still don't understand why colleges, universities have such long holidays - the same with MPs.

    As far as I can see the largest costs are caused by the need to have numerous paid holidays for Parliament, universities and schools adhering to an ancient system of the serfs and their children bringing in harvests.

    The above should adhere to 21st century or give everyone ancient paid holidays.

  • rate this

    Comment number 969.

    The mistake her was to mention a discontinued system - this nearly always draws negative responses. However, I support the following criteria for change:

    Start teaching to syllabus, and not to the exam
    Have one exam board
    Reintroduce academic rigour
    Prioritise English, Maths and the Sciences
    Make a second language compulsory
    Ensure children of ethnic origin speak an acceptable level of English

  • rate this

    Comment number 968.

    Has the hyperactive Mr Gove given any thought to the impact his derogatory comments about GCSEs will have on the thousands of young people who are currently working and revising very hard to achieve high marks in their GCSEs? the qualifications gained by pupils prior to 2015 will be regarded as worthless by universities and employers because of his ranting.

  • rate this

    Comment number 967.

    @ 919. gsingh13

    The only reason that that paper looks hard is because of the imperical units. It's actually quite simple. None of the trig stuff is anything that wasn't in my GCSE paper (1998), most of the first questions are very simply algebra. Question 11B (a) is so easy you spend time wondering where the trick is.

    I don't think that's a good example of saying that standards have slipped.

  • rate this

    Comment number 966.

    #926. tonesalone
    'Why are they worried about exam levels when millions of kids leave school with virtually no hope at all of getting a job with many ending in prison?'

    Ssssh.... let's just talk about whether exams are too easy or not.

    Making exams 'harder' makes it easier to identify winners and losers...which is great while the losers accept their lot. The danger is they might not.

  • rate this

    Comment number 965.

    @960 PatBenatar

    That is the biggest load of rubbish I have ever heard. We all like a dig at the government now and then, but suggesting they secretly might want us all in prison is pretty out of order.

  • rate this

    Comment number 964.

    946 You should get out more.You're living in a a dream world, certainly not the part of North Wales I'm from. Tragic that people can be so deluded., pathetic and cruel.

  • rate this

    Comment number 963.

    Mr Grove cant really say that Changing the system for less academic teens can cope with GCSEs because there is already Higher tier and foundation tier. Most of the time it is the school's fault that teens are not achieving because of the the systems they have put in e.g. one year course. my opinion is that the government should keep GCSEs but have a set system which school should stick to.

  • rate this

    Comment number 962.

    I feel sorry for English kids are really gett--- being written off at 14 as "non academic" i.e. thick, no EMAs,

    Thank God for devolution.


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