'Tougher GCSE' exam to be unveiled by Gove and Clegg


Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg says the plans will "raise standards for all our children"

Related Stories

The GCSE exam system in England faces a shake-up which will mean a single end-of-course exam, fewer top grades and one exam board for each subject.

Education Secretary Michael Gove and Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg will confirm the plans for reform.

Pupils who have begun secondary school this year will be the first to take the revised exams in 2017.

Mr Clegg promised that the changes would "give parents confidence" in the exams taken by their children.

But Labour's shadow education secretary, Stephen Twigg, attacked the plans as "totally out of date, from a Tory-led government totally out of touch with modern Britain".

"Schools do need to change as all children stay on in education to 18 and we face up to the challenges of the 21st Century. We won't achieve that with a return to the 1980s," said Mr Twigg.

Single exam board

Details of the changes to GCSEs in England will be formally announced to MPs on Monday afternoon.

But a series of leaks have suggested that the shake-up will mean that the current system of assessing individual units of a course will be replaced by a single three-hour final exam.


Parents could be forgiven for thinking that reforms in the exam system have become their own kind of never-ending continuous assessment.

And anyone with a child in secondary school will be wary of upheaval and uncertainty about the value of taking GCSE exams which are headed for the scrap heap.

But there are some important changes set to be introduced.

The shift to a single end-of-course exam will end the baffling jigsaw of different units and pick 'n' mix results.

Changing to a single exam board should bring greater clarity to what is being taught and to what standard.

Allowing the exam to be taken at different age points is another interesting innovation, as the leaving age is raised to 18.

It will also mark a further fragmentation within the UK - with devolution taking the exam systems in increasingly different directions.

Another significant shift is the recognition that standards need to be measured against international standards. Like the economy, competition in education is now global.

The first pupils would begin studying these exams in 2015 - with the first candidates taking the new-look exams in 2017.

There is also likely to be one exam board for each subject - rather than having different exam boards competing with their own versions.

There have been claims that such competition leads to a "race to the bottom", with an incentive for exam boards to attract more business by making it easier to pass.

It is also expected to be made more difficult to get the highest grades - with the suggestion that the A* and A grades will be replaced with a top level that fewer children will be able to achieve.

A leak during the exam season had claimed that GCSEs would be abolished and replaced with an O-level for the more able and a separate exam for pupils of a lower ability.

But this prompted a dispute within the coalition over introducing such a two-tier system - which seems to have been resolved to create a single exam for all ability levels.

Leaving age

Addressing the education select committee last week, Mr Gove suggested that an exam could be taken at different points between 16 and 18 years of age - allowing weaker pupils to catch up.

The changes to the GCSE exam will come alongside the raising of the leaving age - which will see young people staying in education and training until the age of 18.

Expected reforms to GCSEs

  • Exams to be made 'tougher'
  • Knowledge tested in single final exam
  • Shake-up of top grades
  • Exam for all but could be sat at different ages
  • Competition between boards ended within single subjects

Mr Clegg said the changes would "raise standards for all our children", but he added that it would "not exclude any children".

He said it would have been wrong to go back the old dual exam system - and set out what he hoped would be gained from the revised GCSEs.

"Firstly give parents confidence in the exams their children are taking, secondly raise standards for all our children in schools in the country but thirdly and crucially not exclude any children from the new exam system."

When more details of the new exam were leaked at the weekend, Labour said it supported more rigorous exams but only if they do not act as a cap on aspiration.

A reform of the exam system in England will not apply to pupils taking GCSEs in Wales - and this shake-up could see a greater divide between qualifications in England and Wales.

The Welsh government says it will not be rushed into following any changes to the GCSE and is carrying out its own separate review into the exam system.

Changes to the GCSE in England would not apply to Northern Ireland.

Former chief inspector of schools Sir Mike Tomlinson - who conducted a review of the exam system for the previous government - told BBC Radio 4's Today programme he thought the planned change was "largely positive".

He backed the move away from a modular system and plans for there to be only one board to examine in English, mathematics or the sciences.

Back to the future?

But he questioned how subjects that do not lend themselves to a single exam, such as art and dance, would be tested in a single exam.

Brian Lightman, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said GCSEs needed to be reviewed but bringing back an O-level style exam was not the answer.

Start Quote

Tinkering with exams is a cheap and relatively easy lever for governments, which has been used and over-used in the past couple of decades.”

End Quote Kevin Stannard Girls' Day School Trust

"I hope that these proposals are not going to be telling us that we're going to have a system that goes back to something that we used to have in the 1950s, which was suited to a very small part of the population," he said.

Martin Johnson of the ATL teachers' union said: "A new exam certainly should not be designed on the back of a restaurant menu as a short-term political fix by ignorant ministers. This is an insult to the nation's children who will have to live with the consequences if the crackpot ideas are implemented."

"Tinkering with exams is a cheap and relatively easy lever for governments, which has been used and over-used in the past couple of decades. What would make a real, long-term difference to raising standards for all children would be improving the teaching and learning in all schools - but that's long, and hard, and expensive," said Kevin Stannard of the Girls' Day School Trust.

The plan to reform the exam system comes amid controversy over this year's GCSE English exams - with head teachers claiming that grade boundaries have been unfairly altered.

The exam regulator in England has refused to regrade the disputed papers - but the Welsh government has instructed the WJEC examining board to carry out a regrading in Wales.

In Scotland, pupils take Standard Grades, Highers and Advanced Highers rather than GCSEs and A-levels.


More on This Story

Related Stories

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external Internet sites


This entry is now closed for comments

Jump to comments pagination
  • rate this

    Comment number 41.

    "It puts countless more pressure on students"

    Yes - that's what exams are supposed to do. In real life you WILL face pressure - school is supposed to help you prepare for this. If you have an important report/project to submit to your boss at work for a fixed deadline - do you ask him if you can re-submit it a few weeks later if you fail to do it properly the first time around ?

  • rate this

    Comment number 40.

    Stopping endless retakes is good but changing to such an extreme of all or nothing performance in 3hrs on one day at the end of 2 years is crackers. If this extreme of ages past is to be adopted, are we also to presume they will revert to 7-9 subjects of teacher-dictated notes and a set text book to learn from instead of the current vastness of a internet/photcopied led approach for 10+ subjects?

  • rate this

    Comment number 39.

    Unfortunately my children have gone through state education and I have seen how they are taught to pass exams, ideally at C grade to boost school performance in league tables. This is not preparing Britain for the immense challenges we face against new developing economies.
    We need change, more rigour and a focus on teaching to learn not to pass exams. Otherwise we are failing our children.

  • rate this

    Comment number 38.

    Children are taught to pass exams. They are not taught to retain their knowledge and use it properly. Making the exams harder won't solve this problem.

    As an employer I find it astonishing that new employees with excellent grades in english and maths can't write a letter properly or actually perform simple arithmetic.

  • rate this

    Comment number 37.

    This will do nothing for educational standards in this country, we should learn from our competitors in the EU and elsewhere.
    There has been no consultation by Gove and there is no evidence at all for grade inflation.
    I expect nothing less from Gove but the depths to which Clegg will sink to retain his place at the trough never ceases to amaze me

  • rate this

    Comment number 36.

    @wirral 18

    So i can get exact same mark as my older brother yet a different grade because his yr was overall more intelligent than mine!

    His year are unlikely to be more intelligent than you. But there is every chance that the exam would be easier/harder from year to year.

    At present we're expected to believe that every year for the last 25 years kids have been getting more intelligent.

  • rate this

    Comment number 35.

    Creating extra examination time to allow the candidate to be tested on material in more depth, while still ensuring an end of course exam covering the full breadth of the material accounts for the majority of the grade awarded. I strongly advise the current government to not give up on the modular system, based it seems solely on a nostalgic attempt to replicate the 'golden era' of their childhood

  • rate this

    Comment number 34.

    A single exam does not fix the problem, that is GCSEs have become so watered down that unless you're getting As your mark is next to meaningless. The introduction of A* marks highlights how useless and manipulated a grading it is. But honestly political tinkering is the last thing we need and the whole examination system should be made independent of idiot governments.

  • rate this

    Comment number 33.

    i agree i think it should go back to an exam at the end of year having been somwone who has taken the old exams then a GCSE in later life and for me the GCSE is far easier , than a final exam so i think this is a good idea exams have been a lot easier, with some pupils coming out not even able to spell or read properly, its all very well have qualifications as long as your arm but you need basics

  • rate this

    Comment number 32.

    Sitting a one day exam is a useless way of determining the ability and intelligence of anybody. A throwback to the "golden age" that never was.

    In the real world they use systems of continuous improvement and regular assessment to determine ability.

    Clegg yet again has shown what a puppet he really is and should now defect to the Tories.

    He has made the Lib Dems a laughing stock.

  • rate this

    Comment number 31.

    Time to take the politicians out of education and leave the job in the hands of experienced and successful classroom teachers.

  • rate this

    Comment number 30.

    Life after school is not exam dependent - it is dependent on continued performance. Having everything hanging on single exams will not prepare our young people for their future. It will also discriminate against some - I know people who are highly intelligent and extremely good at the things they do, but they were not able to pass exams (maybe because of the pressure of the exam situation).

  • rate this

    Comment number 29.

    What happens to my child who is in year 9? Oh I know forgotten about and given no incentive to try for exams under a 'broken' system. Why can't systems evolve into better ones instead of having to start from scratch every change of government?

  • rate this

    Comment number 28.

    I have been a teacher for 10 years and believe me, a 3 hour exam at the end of the course is a receipe for disaster. If a student is having a bad day on the day of the exam and fluffs it, is that 11 years of education down the pan?!

  • rate this

    Comment number 27.

    Tough exams! The way to show you're really serious with education!

    Of course, sucks to be people who want to become plumbers, electricians, metalworkers, actors, etc. etc. And the pressure on young people for three / four years of work to be based on a single exam will probably drive some too hard.

    But at least we've made a political point, eh chums?

  • rate this

    Comment number 26.

    In a sufficiently large set (say... the entire year of people taking an exam) Is there really any difference between one year and the rest. Why not simply ensure that a "pass" (or 'C' grade, or whatever you want to call it) is a consistant standard from one year to the next. Any higher grade than this would be awarded to a set percentage of the student body.

  • rate this

    Comment number 25.

    This exam will be great to identify the top 20% or so. We also need an education, not just an exam that suits the other 80%. Th Germans and French have been doing it - and prospering from it - for years.

  • rate this

    Comment number 24.

    International comparisons suggest that the dumbing down of our education system by Labour have driven us down the international education league. More spin than substance.

    However, this is a disaster for our children. Educational standards should be exactly that, standards that do not change depending upon political whim or advantage.

  • rate this

    Comment number 23.

    There's no doubt that we needed to toughen up the courses but I'm not sure moving back to just exams is correct. School is there to prepare you for the rest of your life and most of life is about completing numerous sizeable pieces of work over prolonged periods not cramming for a one off 90 minute test.

  • rate this

    Comment number 22.

    This decision was long overdue. A single exam board is common sense - it means everyone gets the same fair treatment and grades can be standardised. If you had a fixed % of students getting each grade every year (e.g. top 10% get "A", next 20% get "B" etc) then everyone would know where they stand and universities could compare candidates more easily.


Page 11 of 13


More Education & Family stories



BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.