'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But Labour's shadow education secretary, Stephen Twigg, attacked the plans as "totally out of date, from a Tory-led government totally out of touch with modern Britain".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 161.

    Evidence of the negligent incompetence all political parties treat their electorate. Now we have teachers who in many cases cannot teach, but remain safe in their jobs, and constant political interfering to deliver mediocrity.

    No surprise that in over 50 years of meddling things get worse not better.Politicians and educations a very dangerous mix..

  • rate this

    Comment number 160.

    I think we are underestimating our young generations. They will step up with and they will still get excellent grades. In 10 years time some one like Michael Gove will come again and he will say the same thing and exams will become even tougher but the young generation of the future will defeat them again!!

  • rate this

    Comment number 159.


    "that is why the moral of the teaching profession is at an all time low".

    Really ?!

    I take it your not an English teacher then ?

    This is why I will always side with the kids and never pander to the rants of the discredited, so called " educationists ".

  • rate this

    Comment number 158.

    The only way that exams became inclusive was to make them accessible and passable by all (or at least 70%) by abandoning a single terminal exam. We can have either a 'rigorous' exam, in which case it will have limited accessibility, or an 'inclusive' one that gives most a chance to succeed but which does not meet the highest standards internationally. Politcians have not a clue about education.

  • rate this

    Comment number 157.

    Politicians only care about soundbites & not how they affect real people.

    Regardless of whether current exams are too easy, any sudden change will undermine employment prospects for years to come.

    Good exam results from the old system will be regarded as worthless by many employers, whilst others will make the reverse mistake by applying old selection criteria despite the new exams being harder!

  • rate this

    Comment number 156.

    @151 - I did my O-Levels in 1979 and my teachers knew what would be in the exams and taught us accordingly during the final term, you were obviously let down by your teachers.

  • rate this

    Comment number 155.

    Education is a tough service to provide - people who take it mostly don't want to have it. Just like any other "you will thank me later" things, it's never good enough for some and will never be able to accommodate everyone.
    For those who think it's not for them, I think they should have the right to get some tax rebate and put it in better use if required.

  • rate this

    Comment number 154.

    About time proper examinations at last. Hopefully this will result in far fewer people going to university to study "non-subjects" and will result in degrees that actually have some value and perhaps graduates who are capable of spelling correctly and doing simple arithmetic. Exams in the UK have been too easy for too long to a degree which makes them almost worthless.

  • rate this

    Comment number 153.

    I took a GCSE Math course and a few weeks into the course I was astounded to learn that the best grade I could hope for was a B as the class only taught to that level to ensure most students passed. I was outraged! I might not be able to get an A but I certainly wanted to try. With some additional work I did get the A. How many others are held back so the school can get its quota of passes?

  • rate this

    Comment number 152.

    Have heard from students ( at famous University) that the scores being needed achieve a 2:1 at their Uni, were for some unexplained reason ,set at a much, higher level, than at certain other Private Uni's? Whereby identical scores, that achieve 2:1's at the private Unis, are only achieving 2:2 's at their Uni. Thereby, hugely disadvantaging them in the jobs market!

  • rate this

    Comment number 151.

    Students will never get a good 'all round' education as long as teachers know what will be tested on in the final exams. When I was at school in the eighties, our teachers did not know and so we were taught the subjects thoroughly to cover any eventuality.

  • rate this

    Comment number 150.

    The report does not answer an important question. Would someone need to pass more or fewer of the new exams in order to get a seat in parliament?

  • rate this

    Comment number 149.

    27 Minutes ago
    As a teacher we are in a no win situation. If the pupil's do well and pass then the exams are too easy and we do not get the credit. However, if the new exams are too difficult and not as many pupils' pass then as a profession we are to blame. That is why the moral of the teaching profession is at an all time low.

    Please don't tell me you teach English!

  • rate this

    Comment number 148.

    So. This small island nation will end up having four different exam systems, one of which is completely unlike the others and the other three sharing the same name but different standards. You really couldn't make it up.

  • rate this

    Comment number 147.

    So the gov't suggest reverting to the system we had nearly thirty years ago which they dumped back then.
    Full circle in 30 years.
    They should never be allowed to interfere in education or anything else for that matter.
    If you can't do then teach the saying goes.
    We should have a new one if you can't do or teach (If you are good for nothing) then become a politician.What utter incompetence!

  • rate this

    Comment number 146.

    Rigour required? Then you need coursework....but properly supervised, moderated and marked coursework. Modules allow you to test far more than a single exam; not only in quantity but in range. O levels were designed for the "top" 25%; CSEs were introduced for the rest- the so called non-academic children. The Gove way is 11+ at age 16. Pathetic throwback!

  • rate this

    Comment number 145.

    What is needed is a 'Baccalaureate' system as in France and some public schools. When I passed my Maths O level in 1974 they tinkered around by putting Calculus in the syllabus. We committed this to memory by rote...dy/dx etc and as soon as we stepped out the exam hall promptly forgot it - as with so many exams! Subjects need to be more relevant not difficult.

  • rate this

    Comment number 144.

    I believe exams are there to identify how much of the core skills/knowledge that each child has not simply ranking children.

    This believe means I have to accept that exams will change over time because what my generation needed knowledge of and ability in is not the same for today's children (IT skills)

  • rate this

    Comment number 143.

    School teaches you very little some half truths revisionist history and as for the economics your taught laughable.
    Most knowledge beyond maths and english you need to acquire for yourself and no amount of exams whenever you want to hold them will change that.
    University is not any better. Taught by undergraduates who have just passed themselves 1 tutorial every 2 weeks 3 lectures a week if lucky

  • rate this

    Comment number 142.

    Results based on a single exam test little more than the ability to cram information into the short term memory. I have no objection to exams being made tougher but not like this. Teachers support the current modular system so why not work with it to find a solution? If the coalition can produce nothing better than a system that was rejected 30 years ago then what hope is there for the UK economy?


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