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Labour's shadow education secretary, Stephen Twigg, attacked the plans as "totally out of date, from a Tory-led government totally out of touch with modern Britain".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 486.

    Re Nos 452, 447 etc on the matter of spelling, grammar & punctuation.

    Those matters are a lossed art and good spelers should untie and encourage a return to profishency in all three disciples.

  • rate this

    Comment number 485.

    @JRobinson 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!!!"

    As a teacher I would have thought you of all people would know that it was a previous Tory government that brought in GCSE's you so clearly dislike.

  • rate this

    Comment number 484.

    Am I allowed to point out that a Modular exam system seems to benefit females above males? I remember the discussions before the last change, the perceived 'unfairness' of a stress exam was one of the reasons given for change. Before we change yet again, there needs to be a full and in depth study of what we want from exams, and the benefits to students and the country.

  • rate this

    Comment number 483.

    Just a thought: Who's the independent lot to handle the exam board(s)?

    Will it be a collection of universities, or Gove himself, or will he follow the Tory mantra and pass it out to private tender?

    Something tells me that the race to the bottom of academic exams and assessments is far from over, despite this change.

    Bet they'll still be marked on keywords, rather than understanding.

  • rate this

    Comment number 482.

    About time!

    I got straight A*s in my GCSEs - that should be impossible!

  • rate this

    Comment number 481.

    This is simply a return to the 1918 School Certificate. It is obviously being greeted with delight by middle class and uper class people because their children will do well and corner the job market. It will do nothing for the already demonised UK underclass. It merely emphasises academic memory work rather than vocational ability.

  • rate this

    Comment number 480.

    Employers need exam grades to check standards of literacy etc? OK, they're one way, but what about covering letters and CVs? Do they not also inform an employer?

  • rate this

    Comment number 479.

    A single end of course exam is nothing more than a memory test and will penalise students who find it difficult to memorise facts. It is also not a reflection of adult working life. Most jobs require constant meeting of deadlines which reflected in the current coursework/module assessment.

  • rate this

    Comment number 478.

    Having sorted out GCSE, what about HE? Too many first degrees are not entirely assessed by final examinations and doctorates are even more flawed, comprising a thesis and viva - no written terminal examination at all! Surely the brightest and the best deserve a proper opportunity to fail?

  • rate this

    Comment number 477.

    yet more focus on exam results as a measure of worth. We are ly increasing filtering those that can retain facts as future leaders and not those that can think. My ipod can hold millions of fact but i wouldnt expect it to make key decisions. We should test for ability, leadership, intelligence, and capability to contribute to society - not how much unusable rubish our kids can retain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 476.

    So much ignorance from Gove and some of the comments here. The EBAC is fine for the academic students but it serves no purpose other than to classify the less academic students as 'failures'!
    As a teacher of secondary science I am dismayed that they have ignored the opportunity to assess practical skills.
    This is one area where academic students often struggle with when they go to University.

  • rate this

    Comment number 475.

    I find it a bit rich that all these people who are out of touch don't realise that the current GCSE model follows a similar layout to all higher levels of education. Would you expect a student taking a degree at University to remember all of their course content over 3-4 and take that with them into one final exam? No, that would be ridiculous, that's not how life works.

  • rate this

    Comment number 474.

    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 remember being taught how to answer questions in both CSE and O level subjects. Exam technique has always been part of the learning process for any type of test whether it is an essay, multi choice or viva voce.

  • rate this

    Comment number 473.

    More elitism from the Eton Party. All the people on here saying 'bring back the old days' come from a generation who respected authority as I did, this generation do not as parents do not in still it and telling them to 'learn it' does not work for anything other than private or grammar schools.

  • rate this

    Comment number 472.

    People who have GCSEs should just go be shoved in a hole somewhere. After all they are 'useless' and 'unemployable' its not their fault but who gives a -? they are dumb and useless. Very unfortunate.

    Yes, this is how you are making people with GCSEs feel.

  • rate this

    Comment number 471.

    Only an imbecile would raise the school leaving age. Utter stupidity of a merely academic mind.

    Also appears stupid if I read it right that the new Baca means you get one bit of paper but need to do well in 3 subjects, later more. A recipe for generalists not high achiever specialists.

  • rate this

    Comment number 470.

    What measure of ability is it to assess students on the basis of a few hours in an examination hall? We will be measuring swatting ability, memory only, in 3 subjects. This is no indicator of staying power, ability to do a day's work, ability to apply maths, English and science skill.

    We got rid of O' Levels because of the built-in waste of talent where most students had little chance to perform.

  • rate this

    Comment number 469.

    You state that English Baccalaureate will start from 2015, my daughters school in Bridgemary, Gosport started this qualification this academic year. The students had a choice but many chose to take this qualification.

  • rate this

    Comment number 468.

    @238 Grace. Presumably you passed your driving test first time? Hope that was the case.

  • rate this

    Comment number 467.

    I would challenge many people who believe GCSE's are soft and not rigorous enough to take some themselves. The reason for rising pass rates and higher grades is because teaching is becoming more focused on passing exams and jumping through hoops, not because the exams are getting easier. If O-levels were so tough can someone please explain to me why this country is in such a mess!


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