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Labour's shadow education secretary, Stephen Twigg, attacked the plans as "totally out of date, from a Tory-led government totally out of touch with modern Britain".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 466.

    It's about time we remove government interference from the prosperity of our country. Private companies should be placed in charge or educating, they wouldn't put up with under performing students, don't meet the mark, out the door with you. If we ditch minimum wage those incapable would make a good cheap, disposable labour force to help rebuild our economy.

  • rate this

    Comment number 465.

    Reading some of the comments on here is sad,So happy and smug to say the present exams are to easy,Wonder what will happen if these new ones have high pass rates also, will you still be saying they are to easy rather than congratulating your children on their hard efforts?.

  • rate this

    Comment number 464.

    Does this mean that the chinless wonder is going to stop screwing around with the grades of pupils unfortunate enough to be taking GCSEs for the next five years, or are they doomed to permanent disadvantage for the rest of their lives?

  • rate this

    Comment number 463.

    One exam will merely highlight this fact of life."

    Not true. I failed all three 'A' levels aged 18, but some years later got my degree after doing an OND. 90% (on average) on people doing the OND went on to get degrees, despite most not having the 'required' 'O' Levels to start the course. Some, like me, responded far better to a collage atmosphere that 'formal schooling'.

  • rate this

    Comment number 462.


    ....you'd be amazed to hear that students who took O levels in the 1960's were, at the time, makign statements that the O levels you took were 'dummed down' from what they did.

    There's bound to be a certain amount of that. However, I've got a pretty objective assesement from my own experience, and seeing what my kids are being taught: top level GCSE maths has no calculus!!!!???

  • rate this

    Comment number 461.

    Finally somebody has had the balls to do something about the ridiculous state GCSE's had gotten into.

    It is not possible for all kids to get the same high grades - hopefully this new system will help inform universities and employers about the real academic ability of pupils instead of hiding people who had poor grammar, punctuation or vocabulary behind a 'smokescreen' of artificial grades.

  • rate this

    Comment number 460.

    Absolute nonsense. I genuinely can't believe this.

  • rate this

    Comment number 459.

    238 Don't blame the system if you failed to push your son to achieve.

    Also I would take extra efforts to ask any doctors, accountants, financial advisers, solicitors or indeed any other exam qualified professionals you deal with to ensure none of them had to resit their professional exams to pass them, lest you be advised by people you seem to thing not worthy of such qualifications.

  • rate this

    Comment number 458.

    Exams in a way are for educated parrots. Its alright being able to repeat things vebatim and apply formulae BUT if you don't understand what they do, why they do it and how they are applied then it is a total waste.
    The most difficult question a teacher gets asked is why?
    If you can't answer that then what's the point of testing someone to see if they remembered something but cannot apply it.

  • rate this

    Comment number 457.

    I did O levels in 1977. I would never wish to impose that on anyone. Boring, of no practical use, a memory test, and hugely overrated. There is nothing wrong with GCSEs, except that the Minister doesn't like them.

  • rate this

    Comment number 456.

    @284 Doug
    You did o levels age 16 in the 80's and found them tough, but as a middle age man, found a gcse, aimed at 16 year olds easy.

    Are you listening to yourself?

  • rate this

    Comment number 455.

    The best news for the future of our Children and our Country for a very long time. Labour's nfortunate 'dumbed-down' Children know how they were robbed Educationally - they fail to be hired...

  • rate this

    Comment number 454.

    Perhaps blend of the two would have been good-keep the end of module tests of GCSE to keep students on their feet but have the end of year exam to count instead of coursework or anything else. A bit of pressure but they should be kept upright, instead of slackening and getting a nasty shock for the exam.

  • rate this

    Comment number 453.

    @415 the problem with giving a fixed % of students getting each grade, say 5% A* is that the private schools and those that can afford extra coaching will cream the top grades. The pupils aren't necessarily brighter, they are just coached a lot.

    An A should be at say 75%, then more people will have a fair chance of aiming for this.

  • rate this

    Comment number 452.

    Geoff 358
    Most cant spell or read properly. 1 girl who had a grade A English couldnt spell 'Compost' and had to ask if it was correct. Thjis change cant come to soon.

    So, how was her grammar, punctuation and spelling, Geoff?

  • rate this

    Comment number 451.

    If we really want to put the clock back and at the same time ensure competence in the three "R"s, why not forget these new-fangled 'O Levels' and just bring back Matric?
    (Matriculation for the jejune)

    Or would Gove find it too close to the sacrosanct ambition of universal equality of education which prevailed in those days?

  • rate this

    Comment number 450.

    The debate regarding coursework versus year end exams for me is a smokescreen, youngsters now are taught to pass exams rather than actually learn the ability to learn. I used to interview 20 years ago and every now and again I still do 'involve myself' in this process, the young adults and graduates of nowadays - on average - perform much worse than they used to. I have countless examples.

  • rate this

    Comment number 449.

    Its the content of the exam that really matters. From my experience exams are more often than not just a memory test rather than understanding.

  • rate this

    Comment number 448.

    I think the English Bac is a good idea so long as there is some provision for grading coursework in subjects like art and woodwork. However, I'm baffled by the decision to raise the leaving age to 18. It seems as daft as Tony Blair's idea of sending half of all school-leavers to "university" (aka tech college) to study skateboarding and stationery management.

  • rate this

    Comment number 447.

    @393. Dorsetstrider - please tell me you were being ironic? It's "truly", "English", "Grammar" and "Boer" ... sigh


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