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 21.

    Once again Mr Gove, who has NO experience of working in education prior to his appointment, wants to make sweeping changes, without thorough research and without consulation with educators, based on his personal ideology. Only in education does this seem to happen. Pupils are educated for 11-13 years, yet changes seem to happen monthly. Is it not time a LONG term view is taken!

  • rate this

    Comment number 20.

    @4. Richard Ward

    Bring back Grammar schools.


    Why? So we can once again label children failures or sucess at an early age? so we can force a particular viewpoint of education on them. That we deem academic sucess the bee all and end all of education.
    Do you have any non-anecdotal evidence that they were better?


    Yes. I went to a Grammar and a Comprehensive school. Grammar was far better.

  • rate this

    Comment number 19.

    'Bring back grammar schools' Did you go to grammar school? Where is the campaign to bring back secondary moderns?
    There are two questions in this matter for parents
    1) Do you want to bring back grammar schools?
    2) Do you think your child would get into a grammar school?
    Disgraceful to label children as failures at 11 and ration places at the (alledgedly) best schools.

  • rate this

    Comment number 18.

    No matter what changes are made, there will be a chorus of moaning from the old fogeys claiming it was all more rigorous in their day. (Don't despair kids...these are the same people who need your help with basic IT problems!)

  • rate this

    Comment number 17.

    The last government commissioned Mike Tomlinson to review 14-19 education. He proposed new qualifications to replace GCSEs and A levels. They were broadly welcomed by most stakeholders apart from the CBI and Institute of Directors, who railed against replacing the "Gold Standard" of GCSEs and A levels (so the Diplomas implemented were watered down). Are we going to experience Déjà vu?

  • rate this

    Comment number 16.

    Hurrah! There was nothing wrong with the two-tier O Level and CSE system, and nothing wrong with selective Grammar Schools. If you want clever, talented, gifted and well-educated people as leaders, businessmen, inventors, and scientists, you have to be selective so that they're not held back by the less able. Britain needs to develop world-class people to put us back on the map.

  • rate this

    Comment number 15.

    1. Change name of exam from "GCSE" to "O-level"
    2. ???
    3. PROFIT!

    This is a rebrand, pandering to misguided nostalgic bleating. Exams became box-ticking exercises when league tables were brought in. Solution: free bibles and Latin class, apparently?

  • rate this

    Comment number 14.

    GCSEs too easy? RUBBISH.
    I completed mine last year and found it a challenge that prepared me well for the A-Levels that I am currently doing.
    Scrapping GCSEs will NOT get the economy going again, neither will it bring hope and a better quality of life to ordinary people!
    Gove and the government need to sort out their priorities, and not try to divert attention from real issues.

  • Comment number 13.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 12.

    The big mistake with GCSEs was to introduce the A* grade.

    How the powers that be decided that the problem was so many pupils were working harder or getting smarter, as opposed to exams getting easier is beyond me. And if you don't think GCSEs have got easier, just compare a recent maths paper with one from ten years ago, I have and it's ridiculous!

  • rate this

    Comment number 11.

    What a mess education is in

    Politicians have destroyed our education system


    There's not much left to break now, they've broke pretty much everything in Britain over the last 50 years

    This Scottish Independence vote will be nothing more than a coup de gras for poor old Britain

  • rate this

    Comment number 10.

    Good for the govt!

    The current system is not as bad as it is made out to be. Most of today's youth seem reasonably well-educated and personable.

    But exams are clearly easier than they were. I have seem the work they do now. There is less of it, and it is easier, than in my day.

    The current system favours the thick and, dare I say, girls, who generally do better at course work than exams.

  • rate this

    Comment number 9.

    When will Gove be told to stop trying to revert to the 50's. It amazes me that every single education minister has been given leave to try out their own idea of what education should be. I think its time someone decided what education is FOR and let the system run for more than ten years before any changes are made.

  • rate this

    Comment number 8.

    Back to an old system - that was designed to pick out a very small minority of academically inclined pupils. Disheartening.

  • rate this

    Comment number 7.

    2.Vampire - "Great idea...current GCSE have gotten too easy....."

    GCSEs were introduced because O Levels/GCEs were at the time considered to be dummed down.....Where's the evidence?

    Oh, it points to the opposite conclusion - last year exam boards got loads of parents/grand parents to sit that years exams & almost everyone did worse than their kids.....

  • rate this

    Comment number 6.

    As this proposal to return to O-levels is for England only, then why isn't the Minister's official title 'Education Secretary for England'?

    Surely not to maintain some pretence that this is still a 'United Kingdom'?

  • rate this

    Comment number 5.

    As a teacher, I am sick and tired of politicians messing with my profession whilst demonstrating such a profound ignorance of how to conduct their own. We need to establish a professional body to develop a curriculum and set examinations, and to stop listening to the feeble mouthings of those who know nothing about education.

  • rate this

    Comment number 4.

    rate this
    rate this
    Comment number 1.Some Lingering Fog
    Bring back Grammar schools.

    Why? So we can once again label children failures or sucess at an early age? so we can force a particular viewpoint of education on them. That we deem academic sucess the bee all and end all of education.
    Do you have any non-anecdotal evidence that they were better?

  • rate this

    Comment number 3.

    Mr Gove said his decisions would be based on evidence so where is it then? You have announced these changes so show us the evidence your announcement is based on? Making the facts fit your theories is precisely how we ended up here in the first place.

  • rate this

    Comment number 2.

    Great idea...current GCSE have gotten too easy. It devalues the qualification for those that really do excel. We need qualifications that actually mean something and stretch the brightest students.


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