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 955.

    I got 10A*s at GCSE. [I then got 4As at AS level and I am now taking my A2 levels]

    I cannot stand the absolute trash the older generation wishes to spout out, as if "back in my day, exams were tuf!"

    The number of people getting 10A*s or more is extremely extremely low.

    The older generation exude hypocrisy.

  • rate this

    Comment number 954.

    902 "Fund the state system properly and public schools should be made to enrol at least 50% of pupils from state schools. Get rid of this elitism that is ingrained in our society" - It is already given tonnes of money, any more would just line union pockets and pensions. Public school already struggle to find state kids because they are so far behind, often due to the parental interest factor.

  • rate this

    Comment number 953.

    Good school grades are pointless.

    As a single parent of 2 I am receiving £23k in benefits etc for the past 7 years. Which is more than most would earn at my age. And once my children reach their later teenage years I will be off to uni for some retraining all paid by the goverment of course as I will not be working for the next 8 or so years and so would be classified as low income. :)

  • rate this

    Comment number 952.

    As always, it has to be clear that what written exams do are to measure a person's ability to pass written exams. Perhaps there should be some research to find out how useful this ability is in the real world.

  • rate this

    Comment number 951.

    RE 888
    'O' Levels didn't work for those who took CSE.

  • rate this

    Comment number 950.

    Good. The amount of A* pupils there are these days is shocking. That grade should be for genius level intelligence only. Then to see that these A* pupils don't know the difference between 'your' and 'you're' just leaves me dumbfounded.

    It's embarrassing when other nations speak English better than us. This softly, softly, can't upset the child approach does no one any favours in the long run

  • rate this

    Comment number 949.

    As a teacher I believe some of these reforms to be long overdue. Modular exams have encouraged students to learn only by repetition and cramming. Students require an understanding of subjects, whereas the league tables and multiple exam boards have encouraged several years worth of mollycoddling. Universities and employers are constantly telling us standards have fallen. We should listen.

  • rate this

    Comment number 948.

    I took my GCSEs two years ago. I achieved 9A*s, 2As and a B which I actually worked hard for, a rarity if you believe Mr Gove. I also studied and read 2 Shakespeare plays, a 19th and a 20th century book and several poems from the 1600s to the present day!
    I agree that GCSEs are too easy but I could only take the exams that were given to me so could Mr Gove please stop degrading my efforts.

  • rate this

    Comment number 947.

    I did my GCSE's 2 years ago and have just about finished my A levels.
    In English literature we read a whole Shakespeare play, in fact we read 2 as well as, Of. Mice and Men, gothic/war poems and a modern play (blood brother's). On top of 7 essays, seeking and listening and English language. how is this no adequate to all you people claiming we get it easy compeard to 'the good old days'?

  • rate this

    Comment number 946.

    Yet another misguided attempt to reform the education system. Yes GCSE's are easier than O levels and they are far easier to manipulate than a straight forward exam. Does the ability to pass an exam though show a suitability to employment? . I feel genuinely sorry for the children who are going to have their education messed about for political point scoring by uninspiring charisma free muppets.

  • rate this

    Comment number 945.

    I feel sorry for people going to sit GCSEs now. I have just passed my first year at university and getting here was no easy task. Being dyslexic I struggled through school at times and modules really helped which tested in greater detail certain topics.
    I feel that just because students are achieving and often working harder does not mean exams are easier than they use to be.

  • rate this

    Comment number 944.

    I don't know what the government think we do in English now, but when I did my GCSE English two years ago we studied all of the things mentioned and more. Also, if not all GCSEs are going to the new system, then that's going to be very confusing, as you'll have some subjects graded with numbers, and some graded with letters. This doesn't seem very well thought through.

  • rate this

    Comment number 943.

    How will those with dyslexia, dyspraxia deal with this, not only will they be heavily challenged with this new style "essay Structuring" but Learning Support Assistants will also have to adjust to this new system so how will they manage to keep up with the needs of the pupil or will they be let down as usual, a different way of learning doesn't make you less intelligent in any way or form.

  • rate this

    Comment number 942.

    Shouldn't 1 be the highest? That's how it was in Scotland which (10 years ago at least) had a very similar system to this proposed one.

    I think what would make more sense is not fitting all subjects into the same box. Some suit modules while others suit end of course exams and others still a single large project or essay. Why not have variety in the way subjects are taught and assessed?

  • rate this

    Comment number 941.

    I used to work in a School (not as a teacher) and was horrified to see that in an IT lesson they were being told to copy an Excel worksheet from a shared drive to their own, then copy/paste the answers from another worksheet on the shared drive into their "own work".. It's no wonder the pass mark is so high when they are given the answers!

  • rate this

    Comment number 940.

    Mr Gove continues to think that how things were done in the '60s & '70s is valid. How many jobs require us to store information in our heads over a period of two years and then regurgitate it all in the space of 2 hours? Perhaps Mr Gove should try listening and learning for 5 years and then we'd have a chance of hearing something sensible coming out of his mouth! One can but hope...

  • rate this

    Comment number 939.

    I agree that excessive coursework is ridiculous, but it is unfair to say that all children would seek help from their parents in completing it. I'm currently taking A-Levels and they are a very stressful experience, with a lot of hours of revision put in. Anything to bridge the gap between GCSE and A-Level, as has been mentioned before, would be welcome.

  • rate this

    Comment number 938.

    The Finnish model would be cheaper and more effective but it doesn't encourage social control, so it will be ignored. Don't be deceived - these changes are nothing to do with educational improvement, they are an attempt to establish old-school-tie social control. Viva the Revolution!

  • rate this

    Comment number 937.

    Just how does the new system better prepare students for university study? Universities, even Gove's beloved Oxbridge, make use of coursework and have modular [end of module] examinations. Or does he expect university students to, for example, study three years of physics and take 'an exam' at the end? The time of three years in unversity and two years of A-levels is similar.

  • rate this

    Comment number 936.

    It just goes to show that being a privileged silver spoon fool shows that private aducation doesnt work . the likes of Gove and cronies obviously have never been taught what real life is all about .. it not just now its successive governments that had destroyed the education system and utimately destryed this country .. well done all of you


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