'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"

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But Labour's shadow education secretary, Stephen Twigg, attacked the plans as "totally out of date, from a Tory-led government totally out of touch with modern Britain".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


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  • rate this

    Comment number 61.

    Until people AND politicos see that people are different, nothing will change.

    While exams and university are right for the academically minded, others are non-academic and need apprenticeships and work experience to thrive.

    Employers largely stopped apprenticeships and take a 'check-box' view of ability = a degree.

    The people are obsessed with class-based status. So only university will do.

  • rate this

    Comment number 60.

    Politicians determination to prove to us that they unfit to interfere in the education system is limitless. Let teachers get on with providing an education to the UK & not providing endless reams of data to satisfy the political need to blame others for problems in the UK. Gove is a maniacal demagogue & should not be trusted with the future of our children, it's glaringly obvious he doesn't care.

  • rate this

    Comment number 59.

    As an employer, I find it really difficult to assess, when recruiting, who got a good grade in a easy year, against who got a good grade in a tough year. I really wish that they had just left them alone when we had Olevels and CSE's.

  • rate this

    Comment number 58.

    Not true.
    A two or three hour exam, is a lot longer than any job interview. Simply taking favourable course-work over two years is a meaningless yard-stick of a student's ability to retain information.
    We have to perform aptitude and skill tests at interview because current qualifications are worthless, they tell us nothing.
    I would welcome harder and more meaningful qualifications.

  • rate this

    Comment number 57.

    I did my education CSE/GCE and A level then HND 78-85.

    I have continually seen that Education undermimed by Grade inflation
    and poor teaching.

    This change is long overdue BUT does not go Far enough

  • rate this

    Comment number 56.

    Also means that state schools (in my experience) will need to undertake far more exam preparation, revision technique, study leave and proper mocks than they currently do (KS2 tests at 11 and then "G-Ovels" at 16 is quite a jump).

  • rate this

    Comment number 55.

    @47 and what about subjects llike IT, you cannot write a reasonably complex computer program in 3 hours. There are some subjects where a single exam is just not feasible, you cannot test the depth of knowledge needed in a single exam.

  • rate this

    Comment number 54.

    For years Labour have been peddling the myth that kids have been getting better and better education. Yet I've seen the levels they need to get the results. Compared to the exams I took in the 80's they are an embarassment.

    The kids are finding it harder as the level they are being taught to is lower. Kids are as smart as they ever were, but are sadly being let down by poor teaching standards.

  • rate this

    Comment number 53.

    18 Minutes ago
    Continuous assessment and corrective action are king in the Business world. Why do the Government think that educating our children should not be treated in the same way. This 80's throw back is not going to improve anything.

    Peter totally agree, if the coalition were to take an exam now it would i think result in a fail

  • rate this

    Comment number 52.

    How on earth can anyone have any confidence whatsoever in exams when this government enures that English schoolkids get lower marks than thier Welsh counterparts for the very same exam, and lower marks than those sitting six months previously got? What planet are Gove and Clegg on?

  • rate this

    Comment number 51.

    It is high time that the education and examination systems here were redesigned to stretch and encourage the brightest children, with an viable and valid alternative route for the less academic pupils, and the chance to transfer between the two, if necessary. We once has such a system and we allowed successive governments of both parties to ruin it.

  • Comment number 50.

    All this user's posts have been removed.Why?

  • rate this

    Comment number 49.

    If they really want to make exams relevant then the first thing they do should be to make all exams 'Open Book'. Candidates can bring their textbooks, notebooks, etc. into the exam. After all, we're not reliant on memory in the real world.

    Of course, this means it would be much harder to write the exams. They would have to test candidates ability to apply basic principals to novel situations.

  • rate this

    Comment number 48.

    we worked harder, have more resources & have better educated &trained teachers?!"

    Odd that pass rates in the International Baccalaureate or US High schools haven't seen a 22 year-on-year rise

    and UK pupils have dropped down league tables in OECD international rankings the last 20 years

    Perhaps UK pupils have been getting smarter in a 'special' way that no-one else understands?

  • rate this

    Comment number 47.

    1] One exam board per subject means just one committee for Ofqual to instruct to change standards.
    2] Single end of term exams mean just one assessment to determine a person's career/college however they were on that day.
    3] If final exam only, I guess spoken English will no longer be assessed and what about art, design technology etc?
    4] Most importantly, where is the evidence base for all this?

  • rate this

    Comment number 46.

    Michael Gove's middle name must be "fiddler" - because that's what he keeps doing with our education system, for no apparent or logical reason.

  • rate this

    Comment number 45.

    Education in this country has been a joke for ages. Speaking from experience, GCSEs were purely a way of getting me into 6th form to do A-levels. A-levels purely a way of getting me to uni. A degree was the way of getting me into a masters, and my masters the way of getting me into a job. Then, and only after all that, did I actually start learning how to do the job. Seems a long way round to me!

  • rate this

    Comment number 44.

    Gove and Clegg in charge. What can go wrong?
    They've given their opinion that GCSE is no good and it's been dutifully taken as fact. (Similarly, Gove tells us, without proper evidence, that his academies and free schools do all kinds of wonders)
    I marked GCSE English Lit this year and the achievement of the top pupils is breathtakingly excellent. Ask children who sit the exams if they are easy.

  • rate this

    Comment number 43.

    Lets see what Gove comes up with. I do not anticipate any improvement on any of the previous examinations.
    Gove has rushed ahead and apparently has the freedom to do as he pleases (Very democratic) without any intervention so commenting on his scheme ahead of its publication is a waste of space.

  • rate this

    Comment number 42.

    Something has to be done to stop the rot in education in the UK.
    We can hide behind the sham and spin created by the left that standards are rising, whilst on world ratings we fall from 7th to 24th and anyone in business has seen a marked deterioration in standards of school levers.
    Gove will be the boggy man of the leftist unions but he is tackling the problem bypassing the unions and the left.


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