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 221.

    Another rehashed idea from ye old book of politics.

  • rate this

    Comment number 220.

    We should look at what China / Japan / Sweden and the other countries who have better educational system outcomes than us. Then simply copy their curriculum's and exam system. We all know the current system in the UK was designed to get lots of exam passes by dumbing down, not intelligent students.

  • rate this

    Comment number 219.

    Return to students being coached to pass exams rather than gain a profound understanding of the subjects and who are able to regurgitate facts learnt parrot fasion on a small portion of the syllabus in a few hours. Please stop politicians and accademic farties desparately trying to perpetuate their elitist system. We need a skills based not a facts based educational system - ask any employer.

  • rate this

    Comment number 218.

    Surely it would make better sense if UK schoolchildren were to study for the International Baccalaureate rather than a revamped O Level.

    Why is Mr Gove is reluctant to go down this route? Perhaps it's because providing a way of comparing teenagers from this country to those elsewhere would highlight just how thick and uneducated our kids have become!

  • rate this

    Comment number 217.

    Why not raise standards? I struggled at A Level, it didn't make me give up, it made me want to learn more, and I never stopped learning-

  • rate this

    Comment number 216.

    This two-tier system thing is absolutely rotten for children.

    To me it sounds like these special exams for the less academic students are basically the stupid exams for stupid kids, and the kids doing the stupid exams are going to fee stupid, their self esteem will be lowered, and they won't get the best teachers as they will be off teaching the brighter students.

    Should be equal for all of them

  • rate this

    Comment number 215.

    O-levels weren't better because they were called "O-levels" - they were better because they were administered by groups of educators rather than private publishing companies.

    I guess the last stage in ruining something is to give it the same name as it had before being ruined, so people over time will forget the difference.

  • rate this

    Comment number 214.

    Here is a GCSE English paper from last year, as everyone can see it's absurdly easy. But perhaps more importantly, since when did a magazine article about Simon Cowell become part of the curricula?

  • rate this

    Comment number 213.

    Grove is the best Minsister of Education we have had in decades.

    He is really getting things done and not allowing the coalition to get in the way of real reform. Well done. We need more like him in Government.

  • rate this

    Comment number 212.

    @192. DrBob I've actually just finished taking the 21st Century Science course myself and I agree entirely that it's not sufficient as a qualification in the subject. It's not the first time I've heard it not being accepted onto A-level. What's more annoying is that it was marketed to me as the one to take if you want to continue on to a science degree!

  • rate this

    Comment number 211.

    GCSE's are insanely easy. I took mine about 5 years ago, looking back it makes me laugh. I was able to achieve 13 A grades through revision on the night before each exam.

    -Less than 1 in Ten Thousand students achieve 13 GCSE's at A.

    Most kids work hard for these exams and your comment is disparaging of their efforts and simply is designed to blow your own trumpet.

  • rate this

    Comment number 210.

    @ penguin post 11
    You say "This Scottish Independence vote will be nothing more than a coup de gras for poor old Britain"
    I sooo agree!

    (Now if you'd said 'coup de grâce' I would have utterly disagreed with you.)

  • rate this

    Comment number 209.

    Talking as a university student, the issue with GCSE will remain no matter what the government decides to call them. Students are taught to pass exams, they're not taught many skills that would actually be useful.

  • rate this

    Comment number 208.

    All kids should sit the same exams to stop any sort of 1st/2nd class qualification. Maintaining the assessment element as well as exams is essential too. The government has been saying for years that grades need to improve & teaching needs to improve & when it does & the grades increase they complain. You can't have it both ways

  • rate this

    Comment number 207.

    There needs to be a clear distinction between academic and vocational education. Children need a clear pathway which is suitable for their talents, abilties and career intentions. Qualifications are not primarily a performance indicator for schools to brag about. Real 5 year apprenticeships should be introduced to run alongside academic qualifications

  • rate this

    Comment number 206.

    As a product of the GCSE examination system and a participant of O-level education I can say that I have learned more studying for o-levels than have for GCSE’s and welcome this move. However, #5 Megan is right about the need to establish a professional body to develop a curriculum and set examinations whilst also working WITH teachers and schools to achieve the best from new generations.

  • rate this

    Comment number 205.

    As a student who has just finished studying GCSE's I am very worried about this change. The versatile GCSE allows students to follow a vocational and academic path; which is challenging. The 'new' O-Level would tarnish the progress in schools made over the last decade. Surely if results have been so bad we should be targeting the curriculum, style of teaching and not the questions. Long live GCSEs

  • rate this

    Comment number 204.

    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
    There is always the possibility, that the problem is you - not the University/lecturers

  • rate this

    Comment number 203.

    I went to Walworth Comprehensive School in 1956 (one of the first).
    Left at age 17 with several GCEs.

    Academics, Teachers, Politicians and any other ill-informed groups who suggest that standards today are as good as, or even better than, the standards set in 1961 when I sat my exams are simply wrong.

    I have grandchildren, so please don't suggest I cannot make comparisons.

  • rate this

    Comment number 202.

    Good idea - let's see what a lash-up the Gov't can make when it comes to implementation, though!


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