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 201.

    POLITICIANS: please stop pontificating based on your own rather skewed vision of what you think counts as a good education. Here's a novel idea - use the resources you already have in the education system to bring some professionalism to the decisions you make.

  • rate this

    Comment number 200.

    Why don't we simply add a second letter to each students exam grade showing where they came in the country i.e. top 15% A, following 15% B etc. That way with the first letter you could show whether they had mastered the subject and with the second how good they were compared to their peers.

  • rate this

    Comment number 199.

    Why are we pushing so much for a return to the schooling from the 1940s-1970s? Considering every idiot who took us into recession was educated under that system, it obviously wasn't that fantastic otherwise the country wouldn't be such a mess now. There are problems with education currently, but the only way to change it is to go forward, not go back to systems that failed. Otherwise we're doomed.

  • rate this

    Comment number 198.

    Gove is right. Pupils should be given every chance to excel, and not held back so that everyone can get an A*****. For all you teachers who are complaining in this forum: I bet not one of you could pass an 'O' Level paper from the 1960s in whatever subject you are teaching.

  • rate this

    Comment number 197.

    Looks like some people have not being to University, i finished University 2 years ago, and the lecturing and seminars there was as useless to me as my education at A level and GCSE. Soon £9,000 for someone to tell you that you cannot have an opinion because your not published, and/or quoting someone else is straight up plaguerism. Catch 22 and people think University help expand your mind.

  • rate this

    Comment number 196.

    Michael Gove says ' We want to tackle the culture of competitive dumbing down'. I would suggest that they tackle this problem in Wesminster first.

  • rate this

    Comment number 195.

    143. Bossuk

    I doubt those applicants getting to Oxford and Cambridge like my family will need to be retaught GCSE topics. Probably the universities which offer the pointless degrees will be having these problems.

  • rate this

    Comment number 194.

    Education is far too important to leave to political squabbles. Unfortunately, this is one major fact that politicians from all parties seem not to have learned themselves.

  • rate this

    Comment number 193.

    You can 'prepare' a monkey or a parrot to give the right answers. If the pupils really knew the subject they'd be able to pass an O level easily. But this is a fundamental problem these days anyway. Too much chasing after league tables and ensuring pupils pass no matter what even if they don't really understand it. That's why universities have to run catch up classes.

  • rate this

    Comment number 192.

    Link to this (Comment number 67)

    I think my comment was misunderstood. We obviously accepted students with A*-B in 'normal' science GCSEs on to science A-levels, just not 21st Century Science, which is a particular version of science GCSE. It was, I thought, a bit unfair since students were not responsible for their school's decision to use 21st Century Science.

  • rate this

    Comment number 191.

    Teenagers are working a lot harder now and they should not be criticised for it.
    My memory of 'O' levels (1984) was if you could revise for an exam, regardless whether you worked hard throughout the two years, you got a pass or above. If you struggled with exams, then you failed or got a low grade. Life is not about a two-hour exam.

  • rate this

    Comment number 190.

    Surely everybody will see through this blatant attempt to restore the class system by the Tory toffs. Lets keep the plebs under-educated and in their places. Make sure they have limited aspirations and second class qualifications! Pathetic.

  • rate this

    Comment number 189.

    We already have a 2 tier system for science, less able kids do a qualification known as BTEC science, which is 100% coursework based.

  • rate this

    Comment number 188.

    Perhaps the GCSE system could do with a little tweak, but they are not fundamentally flawed; a complete overhaul would severely disadvantage the students taking the exams at the time of change. Gradual alteration is the only way.
    Modular exams have their place; one 2 hr session in a subject like Mathematics or English should not decide whether a student is employable or unemployable in the future.

  • rate this

    Comment number 187.

    I took my GCSE's last year and bar perhaps Eng Lit, Latin and History, most GCSE's are ludicrously easy. England should be ashamed. At the moment, too many people are getting A*s and it's not fair on those at the top to have to share the same grades with less intelligent and less hardworking individuals. A two tier would discrimintate between students and ensure that the brightest are stretched.

  • rate this

    Comment number 186.

    "When the Tories abolished O-levels and introduced GCSEs in the 1980s, they said standards would rise. Now they say they've fallen,"

    Ah: what goes around comes around! Do you know how many o-levels you have to fail to become a Secretary of State?

  • rate this

    Comment number 185.

    The system does need reforming, witness to the generations of poor literacy rates which quite frankly are a disgrace and for which teachers' and the NUT should hold their heads' in collective shame. What I don't understand is why MG doesn't copy or at least model his reforms on the Scottish system; where attainment and standards levels have been acknowledged as far higher than England's.

  • rate this

    Comment number 184.

    Michael Gove has to be the most annoying Tory minister in the cabinet.

    The worst of a bad bunch.

  • rate this

    Comment number 183.

    ''Michael Gove is in danger of completely ripping up a system that actually works''

    Did he say this with a straight face?

  • rate this

    Comment number 182.

    It is still exam season

    Sack THIS MAN should year 8 & 9 students take 2 gap years waiting for these qualifications

    There is nolonger the infrastucture to provide a decent range of qualifications that impart the skills and knowledge valued by employers educations and students alike. Mr gove can go back to the seventies but there are not the funds foe schools to adapt.

    in 2 years PRAT


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