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 595.

    Let's see Gove and his MP pals sit some GCSE/Scottish exams next May? Let's see if he can pass them!

  • rate this

    Comment number 594.

    If the problem is modular assessment it would be logical to change A levels and degrees too. The mode of assessment is a screen brought out at the time of making the GCSE exam more challenging so UK exams are on a par with more highly valued international exams . Why not just make the GCSEs more challenging, leave the exam as it is so the rebranding cost can be invested in actual teaching?

  • rate this

    Comment number 593.

    Exams, Exams, Exams - you can examine all you like - what's true of computers is true of humans, rubbish in rubbish out. What about a focus of what is taught and how.

  • rate this

    Comment number 592.

    Sounds like a step in the right direction - too late for my older kids but hopefully will stretch the younger two once they're at secondary. Anything the teachers and unions hate must be a good move.

  • rate this

    Comment number 591.

    A final exam only system is a retrograde step.
    The Tories created the GCSE as ongoing assessment matches how students learn and is proven to be a better learning method with improved outcomes. GCSEs need evidence based reform to deliver a consistent, high quality product. A combination of externally marked/moderated coursework, modular & final examinations deliver this: final exams alone do not!

  • rate this

    Comment number 590.

    Regardless of what system is in place, you will still have the elete going to Oxbridge, and those from predominantly aspiring backgrounds Russell Group ("top") universities.Everyone else will scrabble for what employment is available.
    Its about time education policy was decided by professionals and not politicians who are struggling to find ways to give their party some credibility.

  • rate this

    Comment number 589.

    GCSE are so easy compared to when I had them back in the early 90's... evey year they just made them easier.
    This has then cause problems later on in the educational system... now some universities requier people having they're own individual exams showing that the A levels don't work any more!

  • rate this

    Comment number 588.

    He's persistent at least - Will this go the same way as the English Baccalaureate ?

  • rate this

    Comment number 587.

    The state system of exams is not much more than 3 generations of experience in Britain. All it does is show were an individual is relative to their peer. To compare my exams in 1970 to those now is irelavent. What we need is a system that helps the rising generation into 2070. Our education system is not FFP. I know I work in the system.

  • rate this

    Comment number 586.

    'Really test knowledge'. I would be interested to see how this change is implemented and subsequently graded to dinstinguish the good from the bad students. Unfortunately, I was and as far as I am aware children are still taught facts and that facts equals knowledge. Unfortunately it does not really work like that and knowledge is just an argument based on some form of evidence.

  • rate this

    Comment number 585.

    I am a current GCSE student... my concern is that if I have these 'easier' GCSEs will I be disregarded if someone is applying for a job with the the new and GCSEs are not easy, I admit I am doing 11 academic ones and I do all these things they spoke about they are difficult.... in English Literature we already have to do one shakespeare play and a book with English language a play and another book

  • rate this

    Comment number 584.

    Such fantastic timing - just as thousands of youngsters are taking their exams some numpty tells them that the past two years have been a complete waste of time! Priceless. But of course Gove knows best!

    Don't be fooled - Those who want to do well - and there are many - spend two years constantly stressed in exam mode. And yes they do read some pretty heavy stuff too.

  • rate this

    Comment number 583.

    So glad I am old! Never been asked in my entire life for what exams I passed. I got an apprenticeship based from my hobby craft work basically. Since then any work was based on people seeing what I had done, or recommendation of those who had worked with me. On the job learning and performance is the only valid route to work. Exams are utterly meaningless. If you are good you will get on, or gone.

  • rate this

    Comment number 582.

    I also agree that exams need to be strengthened to increase the credibility of the certificates our children receive when they leave school, the as my previous comment stated, doing this without removing the league tables will only fail more of the marginal or exceptional students and promote mediocre as teacher will seek to push those on the cusp to increase their scores etc...

  • rate this

    Comment number 581.

    554.Sammy lanka
    It is crazy that you will have to be good at English to pass a science exam which is what this seems to suggest.

    Oh for heavens sake ! How on God's Green Earth is a scientist going to write a report or a pertinent discussion. My company had to run written English courses for our new Biochemistry graduates. Unbelievable !

  • rate this

    Comment number 580.

    We had all this in 68 when I left school, GCE’s, CSE’s with broad based quality syllabus, excellent teachers and everyone understood what they meant, then politicians got involved.

    Moral, if it’s not broken don’t try to fix it.

  • rate this

    Comment number 579.

    The idea of a tougher, extended exam is a fantastic idea, but removing any coursework requirement is bad.

    Research shows that formative assessment drastically raises attainment and achievement, so modular assessments coupled with the big summative test at the end would be the best of both worlds.

  • rate this

    Comment number 578.

    No digital texts? Is he mad? I doubt they'll still be printing books in 30 years. Presumably the exam essays are to be written on slate..

    And as lovely as 19th century poetry may be, surely it would be more useful to amend the curriculum to help tackle today's problems, such as compulsory finance classes and lessons in healthy cooking.

    This seems like a backwards step to me.

  • rate this

    Comment number 577.

    @ 551.Untio
    "they're going to completely change the system and make the qualification I have look like some Blue Peter badge"

    Well boo hoo for you - are you suggesting the entire examination system in this country should be devoid of reform just to suit you?

    And to those suggesting exams are unfair because they are stressful I say life can be stressful - get used to it and deal with it.

  • rate this

    Comment number 576.

    Nothing wrong with having tough standards for pupils. Its the time when they need to study hard. Lots of people cannot even do simple maths when they are out of school. How can such people expect to be in well paid jobs?. Take time out of watching BGT and X-factor and start studying!


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