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 1075.

    1044 Wow, today's worst post: "This man is literally insane" was never going to be a good start... but it goes on to argue that making exams harder will demoralise people who "aren't middle class" and so all the other "all other classes and subcultures" (?) will give up. A genuine argument to keep exams ridiculously easy because some won't pass. Sometimes you wonder if the Beeb has won?

  • rate this

    Comment number 1074.

    Actually I know the answer to my earlier question. Marks based on modulars and continous asessments was introduced partly to inflate exam standard and also to help girls exam results because before 1990 girls were under performing at school. Since they were introduced girls start to gain better exam result than boys and more female than males enrolled at universities.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1073.

    and they shall be called O Levels.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1072.

    Gove thinks that making exams harder will result in cleverer students. No Mr Gove, making exams harder means less people pass. Hopefully these tory clowns will be out of power by 2015;with clowns like this making policy, it should be a dead cert.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1071.

    How many times do we have to say this before you start listening to us?

    GCSEs ARE hard. We don't do coursework anymore. Two years of work is judged in an hour-long exam.

    Please stop patronising students. We work for these exams, we care about them - seemingly a lot more than Mr Gove does.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1070.

    Mr Gove is living in the past. Life now isn't about writing essays or studying Shakespeare and nineteenth century novels, we live in the age of the internet, kindle, and smartphones. Mr Gove's traditional academic education made him what he is today, out of touch and out of his depth. Do we really need an education system that produces people like him? God help us all if it does.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1069.

    @89 mick Perhaps if your son had not attempted to 'coast' and actually put in some actual effort he would had found more success in his A Levels so you wouldn't have to find excuses for his complacency? Don't be a fool. This system is a ridiculous excuse for time well spent. Blame your idiot son, not our education system.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1068.

    948. Bethcd wrote: '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.'


    However Gove & Tories and the DfE 'senior source'' claim that children ''cheated''! 'GCSEs will again be exams at the end of two years instead of being broken up into low quality modules. Coursework, corrupted by cheating...''

  • rate this

    Comment number 1067.

    There is a failure to deal with the problem of poor teaching as a result of bad methodology, bad teachers, or a combination of both. When I was at school there was always ongoing assessment. This was done by teachers going back over studies to ensure they had been learnt and understood, they did this because they were teachers, not because they were told to. They took exam failures personally!

  • rate this

    Comment number 1066.

    So what's the weather like on Planet Gove? Students already study whole plays and books. Why doesn't the allegedly learned minister listen to teachers? We don't want our children to be robots like those in the Far East. This is just pandering to the Tory right who would like education like the 1950s or before.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1065.

    Not that convinced on essays - it's a really old fashioned format that is not used by anyone outside academia - why - it doesn't deliver in the "real" world. They are designed to communicate from someone who knows stuff to someone who already knows stuff but wants to be convinced by the other person - when does this happen at any other time.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1064.

    -1037.Christian -
    The reason for the 8 to 1 grading is that it matches the current A*ABCDEFU grades and allows for the addition of grades above A* if exams get easier or they wish to differentiate higher levels. It also allows a numeric single value to your "point" of GCSE just like A Levels do (In my day it was A 5 B 4 C 3 etc.) so your university offer may have been 10 points or a BCC.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1063.


    "Increasing rigour in GCSE will develop polarised subcultures within our schools where the middle-class will continue to be encouraged"

    It will differentiate those who are actually intelligent and can pass the exams from those who can't.

    The middle-class would have an advantage which is exactly why we need to reintroduce selection-by-ability to liberate bright children who are poor.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1062.

    Me thinks that coursework is a vital part of education.
    it allows the student to stretch their mind....
    what would issac newton think?

  • rate this

    Comment number 1061.

    Gove is taking education back 30 years. Society has changed and the skills we need and use are very different to the 80s. How will making kids write timed essays improve standards? The man is a serious danger to our children.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1060.

    Poor Annabel is worried that she will be competing with students who've completed the 'harder' GCSEs. I am worried that she has trouble with punctuation!

  • rate this

    Comment number 1059.

    So essentially class sizes and the subjects taught will stay the same but exam grading is going to change. How is that improving the quality of education which we all want for our kids? How will it make our kids better people?

  • rate this

    Comment number 1058.

    I did O levels 50 years ago, and then we criticized the fact that everything depended on a 2-hour exam. It made sense that your result should depend at least partly on the work you had done over the year. It also seems a good idea to examine pupils as they go along (i.e. through modules), instead of forcing them to resuscitate work from the previous year. Why return to systems abandoned long ago?

  • rate this

    Comment number 1057.

    I went to school in the Labour era..I never had a chance.

    Did I get rewarded for my hard work and committed learning ethic? No...the thick kid next to me who disrupted the class most of the time got rewarded with easy GCSE's.So now it looks like the thick kids are just as smart as the bright ones.

    Hopefully Gove will challenge the theory that every idiot has a condition like ADD, dyslexia etc...

  • rate this

    Comment number 1056.

    If they change the standards they should RENAME the certificate completely.

    This is very important because a name becomes strongly associated with a level.

    Once the level and course objectives have been set then they should be permanent for consistency.


    there could be confusion as to which GCSE is worth more and which is worth less.


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