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Labour's shadow education secretary, Stephen Twigg, attacked the plans as "totally out of date, from a Tory-led government totally out of touch with modern Britain".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 886.

    879.Jamie Bowring
    "And once again the Government fails. So now discriminating those for whom this sort of qualification will lead to failure and the inability to get a job?"

    Sorry, but I for one have had just about enough of the "everyone's a winner" system breeding a nation with no ambition. We're even falling behind countries like India and China in education now!

  • rate this

    Comment number 885.

    As an education academic I find it sad that the govt is introducing change driven by politics not evidence. It's easy to introduce populist reforms based on soundbites but highly irresponsible when for the sake of the economy and our society we need more than ever to get it right. Heaven forbid that education policy is ever driven by review and evidence from people who know what they're doing.

  • rate this

    Comment number 884.

    "Thank Shirley Williams for that."
    She was a Fullbright Scholar. What were you?

  • rate this

    Comment number 883.

    The exam would need to be properly drawn up and the the curriculem that educates towards it would need to be properly enforced. Teachers need to be able to teach a subject and in this modern age students need an equal diversity of support for their learning. When I took mine I was given the middle tier paper that robbed me of a grade I could have achieved on the lower tier. It was messed up.

  • rate this

    Comment number 882.

    I taught GCE 'O' level Literature in 1985, and GCSE Literature in 1987. A typical question on, say, "Macbeth" at GCE 'O' level was, 'Write about the themes of ambition and guilt as explored in this play.' For the GCSE exam, the question might be "Write about two themes that interest you in this play". The question gave scope for the full range of abilities. There was no drop in standards at all.

  • rate this

    Comment number 881.

    Will it help to encourage and develop engineers and other types of skills we seem to need to import? If so, great.

    Could it be supplemented by the sort of ICT skills that will be useful in the workplace, say, how to use Excel to present data, use formulae, link data between applications..etc

    What about non academics - how will it work for them? Assuming we can diversify of course...

  • rate this

    Comment number 880.

    848. treetop91

    It's not prejudice, it's called expertise.

  • rate this

    Comment number 879.

    And once again the Government fails. So now discriminating those for whom this sort of qualification will lead to failure and the inability to get a job? Consider children with additional needs/learning difficulties: I am a Teacher of the Deaf. Exam are just not a viable option. What about the real skills of life? ICT, the Arts and Technology? Learning is for life not for an exam! Disgusting!!

  • rate this

    Comment number 878.


    How could I get 'D' in the 1950s and 'A' in 2000s if there has been no dumbing down...?

    So you scored worse in an exam which you had not been trained for than one you were trained for?
    Did you do a control study by getting a 1950s student to do a 2000s exam?

  • rate this

    Comment number 877.

    In one afternoon Michael Gove has completely destroyed the credibility of the examination system in this country. The rhetoric from a British Government has been totally irresponsible. No consideration whatsoever has been given to the young people, currently in secondary education, who rely upon the exam system to get on in life. All I have heard is anecdotal evidence against the current system.

  • rate this

    Comment number 876.

    Hold on, they claim that these changes will introduce "rigour" back into the education system. Have they actually bothered to look it up the English dictionary.

    "Rigour: the ability to be thorough and accurate".

    Isn't the current modular system delivering that?

    Just strikes me as another half baked solution, from so-called 'experts', & a further insult to most students committed work ethic.

  • rate this

    Comment number 875.

    YYEESSSSSS!!!! (But actually, all they needed to do was make the GCSE a credible qualification).

  • rate this

    Comment number 874.

    At last back to quality basics. Blair's three education slogan was all about quantity; certainly not quality. The education system has been churning out waves of unemployable young people for years; unfair to all concerned. Academic and artisan are both required and need different education routes. At last, good sense being injected into the system.

  • rate this

    Comment number 873.

    Trying to ignore the unhelpful political motivation behind many comments, there are many opinions, many of value. As a single father with two children it is of interest to me and therefore I listened to the parliamentary debate before commenting. Reference WAS made to recognize that art and IT subjects need special rules and that SEN will be catered for. Good teaching, tough coursework, fair exams

  • rate this

    Comment number 872.

    Exams do need to be improved in some way, because it is perceived that you can't actually fail. It's also impossible for the number of top level passes to be up a percentage year or year. But this year they went down a whisker and people moaned. But if this is the way forward, why can't it named in English we all understand?

  • rate this

    Comment number 871.

    'How about the exams being blind..without the marker knowing who the student is and which school they attended.'

    Like they are now you mean?

    854. cholmes2

    '... at work I don't get 3 weeks to respond to every question.'

    Presumably you're not 16 years old and trying to prove your competence in ten subjects at the same time either.

  • rate this

    Comment number 870.

    What is the point of any child having a "qualification" that no one - especially employers - have any faith in at all?.

    At last some common sense - expect a lot of "squealing" as we move our education closer to that of competing nations.

    How about the exams being "blind"? = marked without the marker knowing who the student is & which school they attended.

    Back to basics - the 3 Rs +++

  • rate this

    Comment number 869.

    Exams can be the best test of applied knowledge so this is to be applauded. I would advocate an element of assessed coursework but only under stringent conditions where Parents, teacher or the internet can not add to the marks gained No regrading.
    This could be carried out in modular sittings, no going back once the room is left, in the last week of each term and count for 25% of the overall mark

  • rate this

    Comment number 868.

    5 Minutes ago

    Right, so my A*A*AAAABBBBC at GCSE will be rendered worthless in ten or fifteen years time?
    Do you believe that employers will be looking at exam grades above experience when you have been (possibly) employed for 15 years? Exams are predominantly used to begin a path in further education or training not for continuous employment -I was a recruiter

  • rate this

    Comment number 867.

    808. bor
    We ought to reindtroduce grammar schools...
    Why? Grammar schools worked because they could select academic pupils based on a test at 11. Many lost out and many were not suited to grammar school. Comprehensives can have streams and it is much easier to move between them. Education is for all, why does it need to be in different institutions/buildings?


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