Q&A: Changes to the teaching of key subjects

class The national curriculum aims to make sure all children get the same standard of education

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As plans to scrap GCSEs in key subjects in England and replace them with English Baccalaureate Certificates are abandoned and plans to change the national curriculum are published the BBC News website looks at why the planned exams were scrapped and what will be taught in our schools.

Why has Michael Gove decided to shelve plans for the EBC?

The planned introduction of the EBC faced widespread criticism from teachers, heads, MPs and England's exams regulator, Ofqual.

The day after the reform package was announced, the head of Ofqual wrote to Mr Gove warning that introducing too much change at one time might mean the regulator could not guarantee the quality of the exams.

Last month the Commons Education Select Committee issued a damning report into the plans, which it described as a "red light" warning over the changes. It simply said there were too many worries for the move to go ahead as planned and changing "too much, too fast" could threaten exam quality.

Head teachers and teachers said the removal of coursework could severely disadvantage some students, who tended not to fare so well in exams. There were also concerns about the intention to have one exam for all ability ranges.

There has been intense speculation that the Liberal Democrats in the government had been key in the downfall of the EBC, but an official statement said the changes were a "coalition policy", rather than a "major policy victory" for their party.

But Mr Gove told the Commons it was his plan to introduce a single exam board for each subject, to avoid what had been described as a race to the bottom, that had prompted him to withdraw his plans.

What was the English Baccalaureate Certificate set to be?

English Baccalaureate Certificates (EBC) were billed as tougher rigorous qualifications to be phased in as replacements for GCSEs. Candidates would take all their exams at the end of their two-year courses. And there was to be very little, if any, coursework.

This is very different to the modular GCSEs, in which candidates sit bite-size chunks as they progress along the course. However, changes unpicking the modular nature of existing GCSEs and introducing more exams at the end of courses are already well under way.

EBCs were to be phased in for candidates starting courses from September 2015, initially in maths, English and science, but then expanding to the humanities at a later date. Regular GCSEs were to continue at the same time in England.

Mr Gove had said that GCSES were a "damaged brand" that urgently needed replacing.

There were also plans to introduce a single exam board for each subject to avoid what had been described as a race to the bottom, with boards offering increasingly easy exams to schools.

What kind of exams will 16-year-olds take instead?

Instead of introducing a range of wholly new qualifications, Mr Gove said he was setting out the way in which he intends to tighten up and reform existing GCSEs.

With exams already at the end of the course and coursework restricted, Mr Gove has little else but the nature of questions to focus on. There would be fewer bite-sized and overly structured questions, he said, stressing that all assessments would "normally" be taken at the end of the course.

From 2015 in subjects such as English and history, the examinations will test essay writing, while in maths and science there would be a greater focus on quantitative problem solving.

This does however mean that new GCSE qualifications will be drawn up by competing exam boards for approval by Ofqual in a range of core subjects: English, maths, the sciences, history and geography.

The new GCSE will be a universal qualification, which means all children will sit it, said Mr Gove. This appears to end the situation where students are either put into higher or lower foundation tiers.

What else is being announced?

Proposals for a new national curriculum have been set out. This covers primary school pupils, aged five to 11, and secondary schools pupils up to the age of 16, and is the body of knowledge and learning that all state schools have to follow. Mr Gove said all current national curriculum subjects were being retained.

Mr Gove had already made it clear he intended to bring in a slimmed down version and urge a return of the dominance of "facts". He said the new national curriculum would form a base for what schools would teach.

When was the national curriculum introduced?

In 1987, the then Education Secretary, Kenneth Baker, announced there was to be a statutory national curriculum in England and Wales. It was brought in in 1988. A national curriculum was introduced in Northern Ireland in 1992. The Scottish model is not directly comparable with the more rigid concept of a national curriculum in England. In recent years Scotland has had an over-arching framework that gives teachers guidance on what should be covered.

Why was the national curriculum brought in?

It was brought in because there were concerns there were inequalities in the curriculums being offered by schools. The national curriculum set out what children should be taught, with the aim of ensuring each pupil was given the same standard of education.

What subjects are currently included in the national curriculum in England?

The core national curriculum subjects are: English, mathematics, science and physical education. The remaining subjects are: art and design, citizenship, design and technology, geography, history, information and communication technology, modern foreign languages and music. Subjects are compulsory at various stages of pupils' school career.

How is the national curriculum currently organised?

It is currently organised on the basis of four key stages. Key Stage 1: Ages five to seven (Years 1-2), Key Stage 2: Ages seven to 11 (Years 3-6), Key Stage 3: Ages 11-14 (Years 7-9) and Key Stage 4: Ages 14-16 (Years 10-11). For each subject and for each key stage, programmes of study set out what pupils should be taught, and attainment targets set out the expected standards of pupils' performance. Schools choose how they organise their school curriculum to include the programmes of study.

Is it true that many schools do not have to follow the national curriculum anyway?

Yes. Academies - state-funded schools in England that are outside local authority control - have significant freedoms in what they teach. But realistically most academies do not depart wholly from the national curriculum but instead use it as a base for their own school curriculum.

So is the national curriculum still relevant?

It is still relevant, as it will be followed in the majority of England's schools. Most primary schools in England are not academies and there are still some 2,000 secondary schools that are not academies: these schools are bound by the curriculum. Furthermore, academies are likely to use the national curriculum as a guide, even though they have significant freedoms in how they teach the core content.

What is happening in Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland?

Following devolution, a distinct curriculum was introduced in Wales, in September 2000, and was revised in 2008. Ministers have recently announced a review of the national curriculum and a review panel will report in July 2013. Scotland is currently implementing the Curriculum for Excellence, a major educational reform aimed at providing a wider, more flexible range of subjects and courses for children and young people aged three to 18. Its stated aim is to reduce spoon-feeding to pass exams and ensure pupils leave school able to think for themselves and deal with a fast-changing world. In Northern Ireland, a revised curriculum was introduced in 2007-08. It applies to all 12 years of compulsory education.

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