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Labour's shadow education secretary, Stephen Twigg, attacked the plans as "totally out of date, from a Tory-led government totally out of touch with modern Britain".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 506.

    I would love to see a raise of hands in parliament from those who had not resat exams in their academic career because I bet there won't be many. Being able to resit exam's is a part if education, you fail once, you retry, develop and learn from the mistakes. It's just a method of seperating more capable students from those who would otherwise need more help than others.

  • rate this

    Comment number 505.

    Calm down. Here in France, we've had "Le Bac" since 1808. Everyone knows the requirement - students, teachers, parents, universities and employers. Everyone accepts it, everyone operates to a single standard. It works.

  • rate this

    Comment number 504.


    Labour messed up the system? Was it Labour that introduced GCSE's then? Seem to me that every party messes with the system and then moves on. Gove doesn't really care whether this happens or not - he's shown that with his disregard for the efforts of a generation - he is using this as a platform to be somewhere else by the time the pigeons come home to roost!

  • rate this

    Comment number 503.

    Pathetic to say the least. The Tories brought in GCSE to replace O-Levels and CSE, teachers made a success of them. Commercial competition between exam boards has caused the dumbing down, not teachers. Now teachers will have to try to motivate youngsters following GCSE courses which the Tories have declared not fit for purpose. This government does not care about children in the state system.

  • rate this

    Comment number 502.

    Agree with Chris! Like WHAT THE? How on earth can someone get straight A's at GCSE unless they are cheating or the exams are getting easier? Kids are dumb. They can not achieve A's! That's crazy talk!!
    Bring back all the Doctors, Lawyers and Accounts NOW who sat GCSEs and throw them in the unemployment line! They are obviously useless and unemployable! Just 'dumbed down' people!

  • rate this

    Comment number 501.

    Surely the brightest and the best deserve a proper opportunity to fail?"

    That's point of First Year exams on a degree, to weed out the 'bright', but not talented, students; the ones who need a kick up the bum, and those who sadly are just not going to cut it. They also get also students up to the same level to commence the Second Year, the real start of their degree education.

  • rate this

    Comment number 500.

    I notice that the proposal is for "a single end-of-course exam and one exam board for core subjects".
    However this "single exam" will not be as tough as the old "O Level" I recall taking - and passing - in Maths in the 1960's. I remember taking separate exams on different days in Geometry, Algebra and Arithmetic with Trigonometry and the combined six hours plus only earned me one pass!

  • rate this

    Comment number 499.

    I'm annoyed that both politicians and the media continue to push the (incorrect) view that GCSE is a single tier system. It isn't!! Also, given that around 40% of the population didn't make the A*-C grade this year, making these exams MORE rigorous potentially increases the % of pupils that 'fail' further still. Without radical changes to teaching methods this is a recipe for disaster

  • rate this

    Comment number 498.

    This is not new.

    It is an attempt to get an english bacc as the base line (16 to 18) in the face of evidence that this narrows a schools offering.

    It is an exam based on 3 hour papers. There is no detail of how this tests across the band of ability accurately.

    There is no parliamentary consensus so after the next GE this may all be up for review.

    it is not 14 - 19.

    Gove D-

  • rate this

    Comment number 497.

    Where, anywhere in life outside of school, does anyone have to sit and write answers to questions for 2 or 3 hours without reference to any other information than in your brain? How does that relate at all to any workplace?
    There's nothing wrong with rigour but this isn't about that. This is about nostalgia for an examination that Mr Gove didn't even sit and was only for a small number of pupils.

  • rate this

    Comment number 496.

    A lot of parents who think their little dears will succeed with this have a nasty shock coming. And what of those who stand no chance at this exam? What have we got left in the way of vocational qualifications for children?

  • rate this

    Comment number 495.

    I think Gove has been listening to his Bullingdon Club buddies. This is an examination favoured by public schools, what a surprise.

    What we need is an examination system developed, administered and examined by independent pedagogical experts. Not the whims and media grabbing endeavours of a pompous politician. We are in this state because of people like Gove. They need to be out of the loop.

  • rate this

    Comment number 494.

    I work for US company in France. Our French apprentices are outstanding. Good language and math skills and a very broad knwledge as well. Motivated and hard working. If the English Bac does a similar job then bravo. I am asked to judge english technical presentations by french students and am often embarassed by the professor wanting to lower the marks I give. Hope its well implemented

  • rate this

    Comment number 493.

    The whole education system should be geared toward preparing students for life in the real world. You have to start by asking what employers in the 2020s will want from their employees.
    One thing that employers WILL want is a way to identify the best candidates. Giving every student an A or A* is no help at all. Why can't the top 20% get an A, the next 20% get a B, etc? Too sensible for this lot!

  • rate this

    Comment number 492.

    It's ridiculous that you can have a situation where two exam boards can ask the same question, only to have two different answers depending on the different "approaches".. it's worse at A levels- i had a situation where i was "trained" to think one way with one exam board, and struggled to adjust to a new exam board when i switched to college. there should be 1 exam board, end of story.

  • rate this

    Comment number 491.

    I have just sat my GCSE exams and I found it very difficult to juggle all responsibilities and revision in order to continue my life but secure top grades. What more can be expected from me? Should that I have achieved essentially worthless results and that I didn't work as hard as the 50s generation? This is yet another Tory gimmick to convince the public there are easy fixes. There aren't!

  • rate this

    Comment number 490.

    @440 markdoncaster
    It's maths... unless you are American then you no right to comment on British education

    Roll on the Grammar schools. I personally don't see how it will work as the students with the best memories will get the best grades but not necessarily the brightest students.

  • rate this

    Comment number 489.

    These changes will make no difference at all if the government and examining bodies continue to manipulate the results for their own purposes. Gove seems to conveniently forget that the O-levels (and As at that time) were graded relatively rather than absolutely. So, the top10% (say) of candidates got the top grade and no more. There was no such thing as grade inflation.

  • rate this

    Comment number 488.

    Dear Melanie @ 434

    "Yeh defnetly"

  • rate this

    Comment number 487.

    474 Musotech. Yes, but nowadays the 'exam technique' sessions have moved on from time management and subject expectation to answering the actual question the exam is almost certain to deliver.


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