'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But Labour's shadow education secretary, Stephen Twigg, attacked the plans as "totally out of date, from a Tory-led government totally out of touch with modern Britain".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 201.

    this nonsensical idea that all kids are of the same ability is clearly a liberal joke and this has savaged our education system.Schooling should be about one thing;sifting through the dross till you find the gold.Why shld our limited resources be wasted on zoolike animals who have no interest what so ever in achieving or learning?

  • rate this

    Comment number 200.

    187. Little_Old_Me
    Olympics like the GCSEs?

    Don't be silly.

    Olympic competitors are preselected elite, the best of the best.

    GCSEs are taken by the whole school population to rank them.

    You are not comparing like with like.

    You obviously did not do well at school?

  • rate this

    Comment number 199.

    Educating the nations children should not be a political football. If reform is needed a cross party committee should look at all the facts, listen to expert opinion and then talk to existing teachers about the practicalities of implementing change. Only after these things have been fully considered should it then make recommendations for the government to pass through the house.

  • rate this

    Comment number 198.

    Once again Michael Gove strikes fear into the hearts of students everywhere. I may have only done my GCSE's 2 years ago but I think that for the actual students, they aren't as easy as all the so-called 'politicians' make it out to be. I assure you that during the years of study each individual goes through are tough enough and that only a select few find them 'easy'.

  • rate this

    Comment number 197.

    Not really fair on pupils in years 8 or 9 is it? Pupils who've undergone exams recently have sat dumbed down ones but now, with all the changes, future students are now sitting more difficult ones. Thanks for that Mr Gove. I am of course talking from a mother's point of view with a son in Year 8. I am also myself one of the first children who took the GCSE - what a shambles.

  • rate this

    Comment number 196.

    How can the UK compete with China?
    At least educationally we can, what we need is schools to be treated as places of education again not a source of free child care, the school day needs to be from 7.30 to 16:30, and for school holidays to be cut, as in China, more staff and discipline free of human rights, the school leaving age must be raised to 18, and no dole that’s how.

  • rate this

    Comment number 195.

    187. Little_Old_Me
    If increasing exam results auotmatically = dumbing down, then why are the same people promoting that idea not screaming blue murder about all the world records that were broken at the Olympis/Paralympics?

    Perhaps because one is objective and the other subjective? I'd like to see objective proof educational standards are improving. I won't be holding my breath.

  • rate this

    Comment number 194.

    102 - the moog: didn't the Conservatives also tamper with the system? This is an issue where both sides share some of the responsibility.

    It is not just GCSEs that need fixing; its the whole lot. Mixing up vocational and academic qualifications has created a mess. One Uni has made "event management" as a four year degree. Madness!

  • rate this

    Comment number 193.

    The basic ability of the population by subject must follow a normal statistical distribution. So the skewed distribution and high numbers of A and A* grades for certain subjects strongly implies that the brightest children are not being stretched, and hence the exams are pitched a little too easy.

  • rate this

    Comment number 192.

    Tougher is not better. The grades should be aligned with current standards or there will be a lack of parity across the years.

    As I remember them a lot of O level papers tested recall not intelligence or problem solving skills.

    Improvement is needed, perhaps a complete rethink as to whether exams are a good way of assessing competence should be on the cards.

  • rate this

    Comment number 191.

    Just what does "tougher" mean:
    1) Have somebody with a pneumatic drill in the corner of the exam room?
    2) Continually alter the temperature of the exam room?
    3) Ask obscure exam questions?
    4) Provide wobbly desks and chairs?

    I once took an exam during the 3 day week with the hall in near darkness, with it only being lit from a car headlight powered by a car battery. Now that is tough.

  • rate this

    Comment number 190.

    Congratulations Cleggy!!!! You and Gove have sold out an entire generation. My 14 year old daughter has just started GCSEs so will be the last cohort to sit them in 2014. And she says to me 'Dad, what's the point, they won't be worth anything'.

  • rate this

    Comment number 189.

    Both my daughters got a B for Maths at GCSE, despite the older one having 'number blindness', and the younger one being able to easily do quite complicated mental arithmetic. That shows how little REAL learning is involved in these exams now. It's further proved by so many students then having huge problems adjusting to A-levels, because they have so little solid knowledge in a subject.

  • rate this

    Comment number 188.

    Exam expectations should match the expectations of the jobs on offer. There are no short cuts in this matter. Employers will take the best & prospective employees must be prepared to be with the best. A new culture needs to be developed in schools that promotes the greatest success possible.

  • rate this

    Comment number 187.

    As a wise poster pointed out yesterday:

    If increasing exam results auotmatically = dumbing down, then why are the same people promoting that idea not screaming blue murder about all the world records that were broken at the Olympis/Paralympics?

    After all people running faster must, by your logic, equal speed inflation/dumbing down of racing........

  • rate this

    Comment number 186.

    Nobody objects to raising standards, which is why politicians use the phrase to sound good. Exams have a twin purpose 1.To rank pupils 2.To show what they know and are capable of doing
    Tories are obsessed with ranking ignoring the fact that whatever system the brightest succeed.Labour focus on egalitarianism,neither think about how exams show what the pupils can do which why the system is broken.

  • rate this

    Comment number 185.

    Global Education Rankings in reading, maths and science:

    2000: Finland, Japan, South Korea
    2003: Finland, Hong Kong, Finland
    2006: South Korea, Taipei, Finland
    2009: Shanghai, Shanghai, Shanghai

    How can the UK compete with China?

  • rate this

    Comment number 184.

    Select new politicians, some who aren't constantly trying to show each-other up or acting like children. David Cameron understands very little about the 'common folk', Nick Clegg is plain spineless, and Ed Milliband is the neglected third child who kicks up a fuss when he doesn't get his way. They need replacing or a firm reminder of how the world works instead of looking at it in black and white.

  • Comment number 183.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 182.

    As someone with 9 O-levels, I have no nostalgia for this exam. Why we should imagine that one, end-of-year, manufactured crisis is any way to assess the worth of a child, or his/her ability to cope in the the real world - is beyond me.


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