GCSEs replaced by 'English Bac' in key subjects


Education Secretary Michael Gove: “Today marks the next stage in radical exam reform”

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The GCSE exam in England is going to be replaced in core subjects by a qualification called the English Baccalaureate Certificate.

A shake-up of the exam system, unveiled by Education Secretary Michael Gove, will mean a single end-of-course exam and one exam board for core subjects.

Pupils beginning secondary school this year will take the first new exams - in English, maths and sciences - in 2017.

Mr Gove said GCSEs were designed "for a different age and a different world".

The education secretary said the changes would modernise the exam system "so we can have truly rigorous exams, competitive with the best in the world, and making opportunity more equal for every child".

Labour's shadow education secretary, Stephen Twigg, attacked the plans as "totally out of date, from a Tory-led government totally out of touch with modern Britain".

He also criticised the repeated leaking of the plans to scrap GCSEs which he said meant that such changes avoided proper parliamentary scrutiny.

Mr Twigg accused the education secretary of trying to introduce changes for future exams while he was still grappling with the "fiasco" of this year's GCSE results.

Leighton Andrews, education minister in Wales, criticised the plans as a "backwards step" - and said that Wales might keep the GCSE.

Single exam board

The changes, now being put out to consultation, will be introduced from 2015 - with the first candidates taking the new-look exams in 2017.

This will initially be in three core subject areas - English, maths and sciences.


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 the value of still taking GCSE exams which are headed for the scrap heap.

As this will only affect English, maths and sciences from 2017 - and then later rolled out to history, geography and languages - there are going to be upheavals across many years, with GCSEs still continuing for other subjects in the meantime.

But there are some important structural 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 for core subjects should bring greater clarity to what is being taught and to what standard.

It will also mark a further fragmentation within the UK - with England taking a path away from Wales and Northern Ireland.

Another significant shift is the recognition that standards need to be measured against international standards.

Like the economy, competition in education is now global.

This will be extended later to history, geography and languages - with the suggestion in the consultation that Ofqual should look at how this template might be used for a wider range of subjects.

This will mean that GCSEs will continue for some subjects alongside the new English Bacs over a number of years.

There will be one exam board for these English Bac subjects rather than having different exam boards competing with their own versions.

This follows concerns 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.

These are the same subjects that comprise the existing "English Baccalaureate" - a performance measure of schools already introduced by the government.

These English Bac subjects will be assessed entirely by an external examination, with proposals for an end to all internal assessment.

Despite an earlier leak claiming that there would be a two-tier system - similar to the old O-levels and CSEs - the new qualification will be a single exam for a wide range of abilities.

Leaving age

To allow weaker pupils to catch up, the exam might be taken beyond the age of 16 - with the new exams coming alongside the raising of the leaving age to 18.

The Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg said the changes would "raise standards for all our children", but he added that it would "not exclude any children".

The changes in England's examinations mark a widening divide between education systems within the UK - with Wales and Northern Ireland so far not following the changes proposed in England.

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

Northern Ireland's education minister John O'Dowd also said that the "direction of travel" had yet to be decided.

"It is disappointing to note that, once again, Michael Gove has failed to discuss in advance with the devolved administrations proposals of such significance on an issue which also concerns here and indeed Wales," said Mr O'Dowd.

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

Back to the future?

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.

Stephen Twigg, shadow education secretary: "Plans are out of date and out of touch"

"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.

But Anthony Seldon, head teacher of Wellington College, applauded the changes: "It is extraordinary that clapped-out GCSEs have been allowed to continue for so long, when their deficiencies have been known to all for 10 or more years.

"What is imperative is that the English Baccalaureate should be a test of the ability of pupils rather than of their teachers, assessing independence of thought and response rather than be a regurgitation of prepared answers, and that it should develop scholarship and curiosity."

The National Union of Teachers warned of an "inherent contradiction" in the government's criticism of GCSEs - saying that it was "nonsensical" to expect higher pass rates from schools while at the same time saying that any such improvement was evidence of exams becoming easier.

Martin Johnson of the ATL teachers' union warned: "The plans for GCSE replacements are hugely simplistic and fail to recognise the complexity of learning and teaching."

Chris Keates, head of the Nasuwt teachers' union said: "The government will have to work hard to ensure that these reforms are not the final nail in the coffin for the provision of a broad and balanced curriculum."

"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.


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  • rate this

    Comment number 286.


    I couldn't disagree more. I think that most teachers do a sterling job, often for not very much reward & sometimes in the toughest of surroundings whereby buckets around the classroom to catch the drips when it rains are often the norm, as is dodging the missiles hurled by Mummy & Daddy's little misunderstood angel. I certainly couldn't do it.

  • rate this

    Comment number 285.

    #244: "Hence two tiers in society. The qualified professionals on high salaries, the unqualified manual classes on low salaries"

    What's wrong with that? Are you suggesting that a highly educated, experienced professional should *not* earn significantly more than an uneducated, unqualified, inexperienced individual?

  • rate this

    Comment number 284.

    Fantastic news! I sat O-levels back in the 80's, and they were properly tough. A real test that you *knew* your subject, and could apply it. I also sat an electonics GCSE a while back (evening classes). I could not believe how simple it was (course tutor said it was 'tough'). Yes I did get an A*. Only problem with this solution is that its not two tier. Shock news - some are smarter than others!!

  • rate this

    Comment number 283.

    What if a student has a bad day?
    What if a family member dies on the day of the exam?
    What if they have an illness on the day of the exam?
    What if they have a banging headache and can't concentrate on the day of the exam?
    So many things just resting on a single day! Pathetic!
    This will bring in more nerves and stress upon students
    The culture of entitlement that destroys our kids.

  • rate this

    Comment number 282.

    The desire to return to one end of year exam is nostalgia. Modules aren't the easy way out; they force students to focus all year round and mean one can't 'coast' during the early years of the course. Single exams are impractical for many subjects and increase the chances of genuinely able students getting bad grades because of illness or simply having a bad exam, which happens to the best of us.

  • rate this

    Comment number 281.

    I studied O-Levels: this was the upper tier, with CSEs as the lower tier. My children did GCSEs, which again were divided into two tiers, Higher and Foundation: or, in mathematics, three tiers (Higher, Intermediate and Foundation). If the new qualification is going to be genuinely one tier, either the brightest won't be stretched, those who find school difficult won't be able to pass, or both.

  • rate this

    Comment number 280.

    Have 7 grandchildren; I am constantly amazed by how illeterate and ignorant the eldest (at secondary school) are; But they are all in the top set- God knows what the kids in the lowest set are like. No good knocking Michael Gove, we have had decades of teachers coming from training colleges who are more interested in politics than educations, bleat if they are accussed of failing our children.

  • rate this

    Comment number 279.

    Simple prejudice and a disregard for evidence and established facts may be sufficient for framing journalistic opinion at News International; they are, however, insufficient for framing education and examination policy and legislation which may affect tens of thousands of school children and their opportunities in life.

  • rate this

    Comment number 278.

    245.DW-'To all those saying that Teachers and other Educationlists should have a greater say in matters... are you mad?
    Teachers would be the worst people... bla...bla...tripe....'

    Just a guess but wouldn't teachers know best how to inspire/lead a child to learn the subjects? Perhaps you're mad.

    Now whether that is their reason for being in teaching is anyone's guess ... I suspect it's SALARY!

  • rate this

    Comment number 277.

    The sooner the better and about time too. The client-state that was the 'educational establishment' as promulgated by Labour has done immense damage and greatly lessened social mobility.

    Gove is by far and away the most competent and driven Ministers of this coalition government and we should all be thankful for his endeavour to radically change 50 years of gross mismanagement & incompetence.

  • rate this

    Comment number 276.

    So what will happen to subjects such as Art and Drama and Music?

  • rate this

    Comment number 275.

    Fantastic! Really pleased that as Head of Mathematics 11 - 18 we will actually be teaching our subject and not some dumbed down version of it. Labour completely messed up the education system. Good effort Mr. Gove and well done!!!

  • rate this

    Comment number 274.

    The education system is a political football that can be fixed to suit whatever the Government of the day wants to prove about the previous Government. The Tories spend money on Maths, then fix results to show that their money was well spent, Labour come in, change the grade boundaries to prove that the money was wasted..all whilst teachers try their best to deal with that weeks new initiative!

  • rate this

    Comment number 273.

    Hooray at long last a move towards our students actually competing in the real world where what you deliver on the day is what it is! No more multiple choice questions, endless retakes and examined course work. Employers can now easily understand that the results obtained in a final examination is the actual calibre of the applicant. This is a very good day for both education and employers.

  • rate this

    Comment number 272.

    As Wales hasn't decided, Northern Ireland is excluded, and Scotland is different anyway, we are more divided than ever. A British passport has different educational value depending on location - how is this supposed to make us more competitive on the world stage? Emperor's new clothes to dress up a failing system trying to follow this weeks new policy from the top.

  • rate this

    Comment number 271.

    Rigorous (i.e. challenging) exams sounds like a good idea to me.

    However, English Baccalaureate Certificate is a bit of an unnecessary mouthful .... how about calling them O-levels ?

  • rate this

    Comment number 270.

    This is brilliant we completely change the system, and so every text book bought by schools in the next three years will be redundant. So that the exam boards can make a killing on selling new text books to every school in the country. I suppose its good for Gove's friends in publishing who happen to own the exam boards.

  • rate this

    Comment number 269.

    A new start seems quite a good idea to me. To work though, league tables have to be abolished, since they are the root of problems with GCSEs rather than the exams themselves, and the National Curriculum needs restricting to the Three Rs + plus basic science. What made 'O' levels work was that they used to be about a general education, rather than forcing training to pass exams.

  • rate this

    Comment number 268.

    I agree that students should study English and Maths at GCSE. However, I Strongly believe that students who have disabilties must not automatically be expected to study sciene at this level unless they do so on generalised basic with the very basic of knowledge perhapss taught through a subjeci such as Home Ecomics whic woul also give them a life skill.

  • rate this

    Comment number 267.

    Single exam systems test the ability to memorise and regurgitate two or three years of facts, facts, facts a la Dickens' Gradgrind. So, no matter how clever you are it is only memory which is tested, and in an age where facts are so very easily and quickly available via the Net, then this seems very retrograde.

    But this is what you must expect from someone who is ignorant of how children learn.


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