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Labour's shadow education secretary, Stephen Twigg, attacked the plans as "totally out of date, from a Tory-led government totally out of touch with modern Britain".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 446.

    I don't see the big deal with GCSEs. I'm in year 11 and what is so bad about students receiving as much help as possible to receive the best grades possible? So what if we take retakes? that just shows how determined we are to improve our grade rather than giving up after the first try. We study hard just to be made feel bad by people calling them 'easy'. It makes us feel dumb, are you happy?

  • rate this

    Comment number 445.

    In roughly 15 years time, i predict that the tories (having recently won power back from a 2 term Lab gov't) will remodel the education system as the E Bac will not be "up to standard".

    Any bets against?

  • rate this

    Comment number 444.

    This is not altogether terrible. One or two important questions remain, though. Firstly, a "Baccalaureate" is usually a group award - you have to have passed ALL the subject exams to get the certificate. Will that be the case here? Secondly, how will the 'rigour' in these exams test the ability of pupils, rather than the ability of teachers to get pupils through exams?

  • rate this

    Comment number 443.

    And what of the pupils that panic in exams?

    It probably means that they can't handle pressure.

    That's why you should do past papers under "exam conditions" at home as part of your revision. It prepares you for the real thing.

    Would you want someone working in your company who panics whenever they are under pressure ?

  • rate this

    Comment number 442.

    What I like about English education is that it is already very flexible. If you look at the exams in many countries they take a broad range of exams but do not learn a single subject well. Often they learn stuff that is not needed. In the case of languages the real qualifications are separate from the national exams eg. Cambridge Proficiency, DELPH and DALPH, Grosses Spracht Deplom. What's broken?

  • rate this

    Comment number 441.

    Trying to improve educational standards by changing the exam system is rather like trying to lose weight by creating a new kind of tape measure. The GCSE system has been refined and improved over many years to create a system that is now very flexible, encourages constant hard work, allows pupils to show their best work and distinguishes between pupils of all abilities. Tweak it, don't scrap it.

  • rate this

    Comment number 440.

    How ironic labour party crying, a party that bankrupted this country because they couldn't get their math right. Education is one area that has no place for nanny state, we need to get the best out of our future. 2017 these changes come in so let's do our best for our kids and keep Labour out of power at all costs, especially when they have the same 2 dimwits in charge that destroyed this country.

  • rate this

    Comment number 439.

    Great news and about time!

    Problem as I see it is that the teaching profession isn't up to teaching to a higher standard.

    Even teachers can't spell properly and struggle with basic arithmetic.

    We need better standards of teachers and a return of Grammar and Technical Schools.

  • rate this

    Comment number 438.

    The only students this idea will help are those who are best at doing exams, not necessarily the most able. Bright children need to be given something to stretch them academically, maybe, but the rest (you know, the *ordinary* kids) need a system of education that prepares them for work, and to be a contributing member of society. Failing all one's exams will do nothing but alienate.

  • rate this

    Comment number 437.

    Typical pompous Gove does it again what a ridiculous name. Why on earth do the Tories insist on meddling with matters they know nothing about???

  • rate this

    Comment number 436.

    Most if not all parents think their children were not pushed enough by rather undemanding GCSE examinations. If I had thought reasonably that my child(ren) weren't being pushed enough when they were at school, I would jolly well have done something about it. Why is Britain a nation of feckless dependents who lie back and let useless politicians have their way with them?

  • rate this

    Comment number 435.

    It's interesting that Gove does not see any value in coursework when if you look at most college courses and university degrees they are mostly made up of essays, reports and presentations with maybe one or two exams and a massive portion of your final grade is your dissertation which is basically one big piece of courserwork!

  • rate this

    Comment number 434.

    I hope the new English exam tests the spoken word thoroughly because its essential students learn how to present themselves for interviews etc. I don't mean posh either nor does having an accent matter but with clarity and meaning, it must also be something they have written themselves. i welcome the changes.

  • rate this

    Comment number 433.

    Surely, one solution to unfair coursework grades is surely to prohibit teachers from 'over-assisting' students and asking exam boards to mark them. University lecturers manage; they also mark the work which could be more biased. This involves much more 'critical thinking' than one end-of-year exam, which will no doubt benefit shallow learners and those without a nervous disposition.

  • rate this

    Comment number 432.

    This is more avoidance of the problem with the comprehensive education system: it insists there are no stupid people. One exam will merely highlight this fact of life.

  • rate this

    Comment number 431.

    The big plus of the French bac (of which we have had experience with 2 sons) is that it is marked out of 20 and 16 overall roughly equates to an A* at A level. Thus there is the capacity on the scale to have higher marks and it is highly unusual if not freakish for anyone to have an average near 20. That would immediately help UK universities trying to differentiate candidates.

  • rate this

    Comment number 430.

    Why doesn't he just award results based upon the money available to the pupil's parents?

    That should satisfy even the most avid fawner.

  • rate this

    Comment number 429.

    At last back to some level of rigor instead of everyone wins nonsense. Being able to speak English and write it would be nice again and knowing how to punctuate instead of breathless sentences! Knowing how to count without the aid of a calculator would be nice and exams which challenge the whole subject and not just the exam itself. Learning the exam is cheating in my book.

  • rate this

    Comment number 428.

    This is a boon for all those busy parents that currently have to do all that difficult course work for their kids.

    Good call.

  • rate this

    Comment number 427.

    It does need tightning. Currently young people are being brought up to believe that by demanding their rights, they can have everything. Make them work to earn whatever they have.


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