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 181.

    Teachers are bound to whine about this excellent idea. It will mean they will actually have to teach a subject for the first time in donkeys years rather than just get kids to learn a series of facts, parrot fashion, in order to pass an exam a trained chimp would get an A on.

  • rate this

    Comment number 180.

    If the government go the two tier route, then they should also look at allowing the same students to consider apprenticeships at age 14. Such a move would allow those more technical minded to compete with those that are more intellectual on a level playing field.

    The choice for a further employer would be skill vs theory.

  • rate this

    Comment number 179.

    It is impossible to make students more cleverer by upping the pass grades. All it will do is increase the number of failed students and consign the vast majority of them to a lifetime of poverty.

  • rate this

    Comment number 178.

    So Gove disses the achievements of millions of kids because teachers - whom he regards with contempt - have become too successful at getting pupils through exams. Shabby.

  • rate this

    Comment number 177.

    138. It would be kind of sick to make kids do two sets of stressful exams just to disprove somebody else's point for them. Why should the onus be on them?

    In the experiments I know of, the "oldies" (your word) were given several weeks to revise. As for forgetting what they learned, if that doesn't hint at older exams favouring cramming rather than actual understanding, I don't know what does!

  • rate this

    Comment number 176.

    Take a deep breath and then cheer.

    A Conservative has said that competition does not work.

    A time for three cheers rather than the usual pointless vituperations about Tories, speeding cars and ugly cyclists.

  • rate this

    Comment number 175.

    What next? Bring back the cane? Silly Tories.

  • rate this

    Comment number 174.

    Well i for one agree in principle, i did a mixture of O level and CSE as my ability in different subjects varied. I was far happier getting a CSE grade1 in French (equivalent to O level grade C) than failing misreably at O level. I feel that this type of exam process will help those who are not accademically talented.

  • rate this

    Comment number 173.

    It was the Tories who originally introduced GCSEs to counter the competely artificial distinction between the ways so-called academic and non-academic students were examined. But this was in the days when education policy was based on logic, consensus and evidence. Today right-wing ideology rules and the education profession is too demoralised to even protest at this latest ludicrous proposal.

  • rate this

    Comment number 172.

    and about time too.

  • rate this

    Comment number 171.

    Here we go again!

    The Tory elite can't stand the fact that kids are actually doing better so they have to change the system again. The only sensible thing about these proposals is to have one overall exam board.

  • rate this

    Comment number 170.

    I was the first year to do GCSE, and I did O level maths the November before. I studied hard from my O level I did no work from the GCSE becasue I already had the qualification - previous years top sets had done Stats in the June but this cause was a GCSE casualty. I got exactly the same grade in both (B), which says a lot.

    I know exactly how much easier GCSEs were - significantly.

  • rate this

    Comment number 169.

    Dumbing down our education system since the 1960s & 1970s has made things miles easier for teachers and pupils but in the real world the UK will pay a high price for this strategy

  • rate this

    Comment number 168.

    144. Le Bloke
    The left spent years preaching and imposing immigration precisely to crush the workers and their wages. Anyone pointing this out was called racist. You people don't get to criticise others.

    "You people"?
    I'm a middle class white man, you're using the language of a racist bigot against the wrong target this time.

  • rate this

    Comment number 167.

    Once pupils in Hong Kong took UK O levels now a UK GCSE Grade A in maths is worth a "C" in HK. International comparison proves dumbing down.
    Then teachers teaching to test so pupils learn to pass the exam and not the topic, plus a modules giving a "learn-pass-forget-move on" view of learning and it's no wonder I have to do remedial GCSE maths for our 1st yr undergrads. We must change the system.

  • rate this

    Comment number 166.

    I cannot help but feel a little aggrieved by this move. Back in 1988 I was one of the first year to suffer the introduction of GCSEs. My school was unprepared, disorganised and huge numbers of my peers failed due to lost or poorly gathered coursework, and exams that were untested and irrelivent to our studies.

    Yet now the same party who introduced them admit it was a mistake? Who do I sue?

  • rate this

    Comment number 165.

    126 l j s
    Please tell me a country on this planet where all the population are well educated and in work or have ever been?

  • rate this

    Comment number 164.

    "withinout any evidence of GCSE failure" ... look at youth unemployment! They are mostly unemployable because they are taught not to work, not to try, not to put the effort in and that if they sit around on their rear ends everything (including the exam answers) will be handed to them on a plate! It's time somebody kicked the school system into touch!

  • rate this

    Comment number 163.

    @148 Ben
    Absolutely, and children should be taught those skills (by teachers AND parents) when they are of primary school age, that's where the education system is truly failing.

  • rate this

    Comment number 162.

    Michael Gove you are Bang On. The best news for childrens' education in many years. I agree with you 100%. See it through. Don't let Cameron/Clegg and the airy fairy libs and left wingers deter you. You have the support of every parent. Now teachers, get off your backsides and start to do what you are being paid for. Those who can't, find another job.


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