'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But Labour's shadow education secretary, Stephen Twigg, attacked the plans as "totally out of date, from a Tory-led government totally out of touch with modern Britain".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 241.

    Most people aren't 'giants' or 'midgets' - shouldn't we focus mainly on them?

    No - we shouldn't "focus" on anyone - we should aspire to give everyone the best preparation we can. By not also catering for the brightest students, how many opportunities have been lose to our country ? The "great advances" by which everyone in society benefits are generally driven by the top 1%.

  • rate this

    Comment number 240.

    Good move, but not enough.

    Exams should be separate per subject and VERBAL. Exam board would then be able to assess student's problem solving skills, memory, mental calc and ability to think quickly under pressure. All that matters much more than just ability to put correct answert into the box.
    This is how it's done in the East and which which is why they are much better at maths, phys etc.

  • rate this

    Comment number 239.

    205. ting :-Standards have dramatically dropped during the last 10 years. I've taught ICT & my head of dept bullied us into ensuring that ALL students got A -C.

    so how did you ensure that then ? endless retakes ? err extra help ;-)

    whats your point ? are you worried you will have to collect your p45 ?

    all sounds a little bit corrupt to me

  • rate this

    Comment number 238.

    199 Stewey
    Exactly right either take the politicians out of the discussion or involve them all and include people who understand education and industry to devise the system.It won't happen as the answer will not be to any political masters taste.

  • rate this

    Comment number 237.

    Mr Gove just wants more children to fail so "high flyers" like him can feel good. Just because someone has a good memory and can pass an exam and write down everything they know in three hours doesn't mean they are any good. Most people who built successful businesses didn't pass exams or go to University. Most politicians and bankers did. Do we really need more like them (and him)? Not really.

  • rate this

    Comment number 236.

    A curriculum which measures people's ability to plan, manage and complete coursework to deadlines and which is constantly assessed is very appropriate for the world of work. A curriculum which measures someone's ability to cram knowledge in and then sit a three hour exam has no relevance to the world of work.

    The only good point of this reform is the move towards a single exam board.

  • rate this

    Comment number 235.

    A backward step from a backward looking Party. Being judged purely on your performance in one 3 hour exam is ridiculous. In my class some of the less bright pupils succeeded due to their ability to parrot facts & figures, it doesn't mean they had a better understanding or could think creatively.
    Tories trying to drag us back to the 50s,we will end up with dull boys running things,badly, like now.

  • rate this

    Comment number 234.

    This is definately good news for pupils. I think the GCSE system lost its way as different boards competed for schools giving them business. Boards appearing to have hard exams were avoided by schools who are chasing exam results so their heads are not put out of a job. Someone getting a grade A* & A should be incredibly gifted students. The grades much reflect the students ability.

  • Comment number 233.

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

  • rate this

    Comment number 232.

    A single exam at the end of the course works IF the aim is not to test retention but whether the student understands the principles and can apply them in a not entirely familliar context. I recall learning about simple harmonic motion and the pendulum; in the exam the question was was posed around oscilating water levels in a U-tube. Exactly the same principles - and a great test of our ability.

  • rate this

    Comment number 231.

    The other thing that is required is the ability to hold pupils back a year if they are generally under-performing, or to at least hold them back some time in select subjects where needed (i.e., pupils to take final exams when ready, not at a set time). Maybe they could show the Ace Rimmer Red Dwarf episode to affected pupils to make them feel better about it!

  • rate this

    Comment number 230.

    Exams filter out some of the best students, and favour those who are able to perform well in exams, when often, that may be the only skill they have. We need a range of appropriate tests, including assessment. Business needs to work with schools and teachers, not politicians, to find the best way to provide the right skills for the future. We must stop anyone else turning out like Michael Gove.

  • rate this

    Comment number 229.

    yes standards have gone down but modern ICT classes are not akin to 70s typing classes. Children - boys and girls - mainly learn how to use MS software. You clearly have no idea what you're talking about. I have taught ICT for 10 years so I can comment.

  • rate this

    Comment number 228.

    Are exams at 16 intended to indicate where pupils stand in relation to their peers (like O-Levels where only a fixed % could get an A), or what they are capable of (like GCSEs where there are no quotas per grade)? In other words, are these relative or absolute grades? Until politicians, business, teachers, etc., resolve this tension, we're doomed to perpetual dissatisfaction with our exam system.

  • rate this

    Comment number 227.

    In summary - A move back towards GCE style courses.

    That means I was right for over 20 years.

    The only way to do well at a GCE exam was to revise (and understand) your entire course work as much as possible. That's what I did. It was a fantastic exam. I would have hated wishy washy GCSE's.

  • rate this

    Comment number 226.

    No matter what you call them exams have been too easy. the only people who thought that britains kids are getting brighter, are the teachers and the politicians. Sorry but whats wrong with just giving %'s rather than "fixable" grades. As usual MPs go for a 1 size fits all approach. Exams are OK for those kids who manage the pressure, apprenticeships and modular are best for the rest.

  • rate this

    Comment number 225.


    I agree that schools shouldn't be a source of free child care. However if you have them teaching from 7.30 to 16.30 that is just what they will become! How would you fund doubling the teachers as well? I take it you are aware that most teachers work an 8.00-18.00 job already and are not just working when the kids are there? (they have to take home a lot of work as well).

  • rate this

    Comment number 224.

    A single exam will demonstrate a) all round understanding of the subject, b) the ability through revision to plan and organize your time, c) the willingness for self sacrifice during the exam period, d) the ability to cope handle pressure. Yes some intelligent people failed at the old exam system but in my experience there were few and highlighted other shortcomings an employer would want to know

  • rate this

    Comment number 223.

    Seems a reasonable idea but they have made so many mistakes I doubt if the end result will justify the change
    The mess that has happened in the education system since they came to power is unbelievable

  • rate this

    Comment number 222.

    GCSE is to change to a single exam at the end of the course. Gee whizz. This is nothing new, there are already courses that take 2 yrs & at the end the exam is taken..Geography History MFL are but a few. Until League tables go, schools will continue to teach children how to pass exams This will ensure the school is at the top of the table,but the child will still come out with less knowledge.


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