GCSEs: Gove pledges 'challenging' exam changes


Michael Gove: "Young people deserve an education system that can compete with the best in the world"

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An overhaul of GCSEs in England has been announced by Education Secretary Michael Gove to help pupils in England "compete with the best in the world".

From 2015, GCSEs will move from coursework to exams at the end of two years and will be graded from 8 to 1, rather than A* to G.

"We need to reform our examination system to restore public confidence," Mr Gove told the House of Commons.

Labour's Stephen Twigg attacked "shallow" changes lacking in evidence.

Mr Twigg accused Mr Gove of "cutting back on re-sits, while affording himself a fourth attempt at GCSE reform".

Mary Bousted, leader of the ATL teachers' union, said the constant change in exams was turning pupils into "Mr Gove's guinea pigs".


Head teachers' leader Russell Hobby said the plans for a "more rigorous exam to the existing GCSE contain merit" but warned against an over-hasty implementation. "We need to take time to get any new assessment system right."

Wales and Northern Ireland are keeping GCSEs, but so far are not adopting the changes proposed for England.

Ofqual head Glenys Stacey says: "We want to see qualifications that are more stretching for the most able students, using assessments that really test knowledge, understanding and skills."

There is no sign of a change in name to I-level for the English exams - as had been rumoured.

Key changes from autumn 2015
  • Changes will initially be for nine core GCSE subjects
  • Grading by numbers 8-1 rather than by the current letters A*-G
  • No more modular courses, instead full exams taken at the end of two years
  • Controlled assessments (coursework done under exam conditions) will be scrapped
  • Exams to be based on a more stretching, essay-based system
  • Pass mark to be pushed higher

The reforms will initially apply to a group of core subjects - English language and literature, maths, physics, chemistry, biology, combined science, history and geography.

'Whole book'

Hundreds of thousands of pupils will begin studying these revised GCSEs from autumn 2015 and the first candidates to take the exams will be in summer 2017.

Apart from exceptions such as practical experiments in science, there will be a shift towards results depending fully on exams taken at the end of two years. It will mean removing the 25% of marks in history, English literature and geography that are currently allowed for controlled assessments.


The GCSE changes being announced will only apply to pupils in England.

Scotland has its own exam system, but Wales and Northern Ireland also use GCSEs.

Wales is planning its own regulatory shake-up, but has already said it has no intention of changing from the GCSE brand.

Wit no sign of a change in the name of the new exams in England, there are likely to be questions about how universities and employers will understand the different forms of GCSE.

Grading will be by numbers rather than letters - with 8 at the top and 1 at the bottom. The pass mark will be pushed higher, with claims it will compare with the highest-performing school systems, such as Finland and Shanghai.

But the National Union of Teachers said Finland used a high level of the type of student assessment being removed from exams in England.

The new GCSEs will push for a more stretching, essay-based exam system, reminiscent of O-levels, taken by pupils until the late 1980s.

Mr Gove told MPs that previous course specifications "were too vague" and had caused "suspicion and speculation that some exam boards were 'harder' than others".

History will require more study of British history. Pupils will have to write an in-depth study of a 25-to-50-year period within a range of eras stretching from 500AD to the present day.

There will be a less prominent world history section and pupils will be asked to study a theme such as changes in politics, religion or culture across the medieval, early modern and modern eras.

In English literature, exam questions will be designed to ensure that pupils have read the whole book.

The course content will include at least one play by Shakespeare, a selection of work by the Romantic poets, a 19th Century novel, a selection of poetry since 1850 and a 20th Century novel or drama.

For both English language and literature, digital texts are excluded.

Maths will promote the idea of developing independent problem-solving skills, rather than setting types of questions that can be rehearsed.

Education Minister Elizabeth Truss said: "We do need to start competing against those top performing countries in the world, because for too long we've pretended that students' results are getting better, when all that's been happening is the exams have been getting easier."

Brian Lightman, leader of the ASCL head teachers' union, said his greatest concern was about the proposed syllabus changes. "Simply making exams harder does not guarantee higher standards or mean that students will be prepared for a job. The curriculum should stretch and challenge the highest achieving students but it must also engage and motivate those who struggle at the other end."


This is the latest stage in Mr Gove's drive to reconfigure the exam system.

Last year, Mr Gove announced plans for the scrapping of GCSEs and their replacement with English Baccalaureate Certificates, with each subject to be set by a single exam board.

This re-branding was scrapped, with GCSEs to be retained but reformed instead.

NUT general secretary Christine Blower said the the government's approach was "rushed".

"If you did this by consensus, by actually talking to the profession and understanding how best to examine things, we would be in a much better position."

Start Quote

Simply making exams harder does not guarantee higher standards or mean that students will be prepared for a job”

End Quote Brian Lightman ASCL general secretary

Chris Keates, leader of the Nasuwt teachers' union, attacked the government's claim that the GCSE was a "broken qualification" and said it had "proved itself to be a robust and reliable qualification".

She accused the government of driving an "inaccurate and ideologically-driven media attack on the qualification".

The latest plans will be put out to consultation over the summer, with a timetable that will see exam boards producing courses to be accredited by Ofqual for teaching in autumn 2015.

The prospect of different forms of GCSEs in England, and Wales and Northern Ireland has raised the question of how they will be distinguished from each other.

The CBI said employers would want to be "crystal clear about the differences to eliminate any confusion".

Exam reform in England*

Current GCSE New GCSE

* Wales and Northern Ireland are keeping GCSES, but will not adopt the changes outlined above. Scotland has its own system.


Modular courses with coursework plus exams. Exams taken throughout the course as modules are completed. However, from Sep 2012, coursework and modules were reduced or reformed

Modular courses scrapped, new course content, reduced coursework but GCSE brand retained. Controlled assessments scrapped. Most exams taken after two years rather than at the end of modules. More demanding essay-style questions

Exam board

Multiple exam boards

Multiple exam boards


Two year course period; some exams can be taken at the end of each module

Exams taken at the end of two year period, with first exams in summer 2017


The existing form of GCSE will continue for subjects outside the core group of new GCSEs

Reforms will be initially applied to core subjects - English, maths, sciences, history and geography - with others to follow


A* - G

Numbers 8 (highest) to 1 (lowest). Pass mark to be pushed higher


Schools measured by pupils achieving five A*-C passes including English and maths

Still under consultation, but under proposals could be based on the number of pupils in a school reaching an attainment threshold in English and maths. Average point score would be based on a range of eight GCSEs


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  • rate this

    Comment number 575.

    Many ignorant comments here about how the Centuries old, tried & tested system of one-off final exams are a mere "memory test". Not true - plenty of problem solving questions for Maths & Science. However, pupils will remember and retain knowledge if they actually care about the subject and are passionate about it. The "memory test" on a subject is a more reliable method than "course work" cheating

  • rate this

    Comment number 574.

    I notice that Michael Gove places an emphasis on standards to the point everything is assessed by one examination, yet his emphasis upon standards does not translate to making sure there is one exam board for each exam to prevent apparent 'competition to dumb down.' Gove could not run a bath, let alone take one of the current GCSE exams with his sourcing of Premier Inn! A laughable man!

  • rate this

    Comment number 573.

    Why is the top grade 8? There will be initial confusion from employers (and for longer among the wider population) then, when grade inflation means they bring in a grade 9, how are employers going to compare? It's going to favour the younger. No, number 1 is top.

  • rate this

    Comment number 572.

    "If you ever want to put kids off English lessons, then have them read Shakespeare or read a 19th century novel"

    It will put some off it's true. But it will absolutely inspire others.
    All kids should have the opportunity to discover something like Shakespeare, just like they should try Chemistry, Woodwork, Sports, Cooking and all the other subjects.
    And then they can take their options.

  • rate this

    Comment number 571.

    Primary schools teach pupils these days in science "what do you have to keep the same to make it a fair test?" More correctly it's called controlling the variables in an investigation. What variables are being "kept the same" in trying to compare exam results in this county with those in Finland or China?

  • rate this

    Comment number 570.

    It's sounds like WW3 is kicking off in central London at the moment why do the BBC not have some news about that? Is it safe to go get my lunch??

  • rate this

    Comment number 569.

    2 Minutes ago
    Oh my God ! I can hear the yells of the "all must have prizes" bunch from here.

    Come on down, The Sun needs your intellect.

  • rate this

    Comment number 568.

    #521 O levels were graded A-E, CSE's were 1-5 (1 the highest) They have numbered 1-8 so in a few years they can add a 9 and a 10 and n+1 after that!

  • rate this

    Comment number 567.

    Exams just measure who is good at passing exams. Real life is nothing like an exam. Real life values creative use of all available help in order to solve a problem. I've never sat in my office and thought, "no, I won't use Google, because unless I can rote-remember it then it doesn't count."

    Coursework may have had its problems with cheating, but at least it's closer to real life.

  • rate this

    Comment number 566.

    Are you expert in education because you once went to school? I'm not a teacher and don't claim to know how to do it well. The problem here is the conflict between teachers who want to deliver best value for kids, and politicians who see exams as a filtering mechanism (perhaps with a right-wing stance of "Life is tough, get over it"). Can't we do both? What will it achieve to fail more kids?

  • rate this

    Comment number 565.

    If as Chris Keates claims the GCSE has "proved itself to be a robust and reliable qualification". why then are so many Universities now running a "Foundation Year" to bring students up to their required standard?

  • rate this

    Comment number 564.

    Bring back the 11 plus.
    Bring back Grammar Schools.
    Bring back the cane.

    Yours sincerely
    DM reader.

  • rate this

    Comment number 563.

    @ 551

    An excellent point. I was in the last lot to do A-levels before the new A* grade was introduced. I didn't take a gap year, but the ones who did found when they got back that they were competing for places with those who had A*s even though the grade didn't exist when they took their exams.

  • rate this

    Comment number 562.

    1 Hour ago
    Oh, and what benefit does grading the results 8-1 bring - absolutely none

    I assume it is so you can work out a students average grade across multiple subjects. That is also why it has been reversed from O-level, I imagine (so that higher average is "better")

  • rate this

    Comment number 561.

    I'm getting rather tired of amateur dabblers like Gove deciding they know better than the professionals, on the basis of ideology and the eternal nostalgia for the good old days (which never existed).

    I lived through the good old days (at school 50 years ago and teaching 40 years ago) - and they were anything but good.

  • rate this

    Comment number 560.

    It is sad that modular work will be reduced or lost altogether as it appears to suit those able students who have difficulty undertaking a final examination. I agree that a final exam is necessary to establish how well a student has learnt the subject but I fear that the new process will suit the most able student better. A mixture of modular work and exams may be fairer.

  • rate this

    Comment number 559.

    I assume this does not apply to the "free" and faith schools this government has been promoting? These school are supposed to be better, because the professionals who run them, can set their own curriculum.
    Why is it, that in these schools professionals know what is best for their students, yet in all the rest, an ex-journalist apparently knows what is best?

  • rate this

    Comment number 558.

    I sat my GCSE's 5 years ago and with regard to standard, they are controlled in the same way that A-levels are, by exam boards. Private exam boards control standards to reflect well on schools so that they will choose their exams. Grade levels should be universalized into one exam board.

  • rate this

    Comment number 557.

    This will advantage private schools of course. They will have the resources to run mock exams throughout the 2 years of the course. State school teachers are too pressured to do this because of the constant ridiculous demands from the ToryDems. And they have the small matter of double-triple the number of pupils per class too.

  • rate this

    Comment number 556.

    Oh my God ! I can hear the yells of the "all must have prizes" bunch ffrom here. Perhaps now companies will not have to spend time and money on remedial literacy and numeracy skills.


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