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 1095.

    Basing two years of learning on a couple of exams can be detrimental to some students. I sat O levels with the flu - 3 days of struggling, then ended up in hospital. They then awarded me a grade for the exams I missed - BASED ON THE FIRST 3 DAYS of exams I did do. If you have great recall, health and are not female (PMT anyone?) then relying purely on exams is OK - but a mix is better.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1094.

    Do we trust Wobble Lips to reform the education system or indeed Hague to be defence secretary.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1093.

    This is Gove trying to drive down marks so that less people go to university.

    He is a nasty piece of work.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1092.

    These 'more demanding essay-style questions' - will students be limited to 400 characters?

  • rate this

    Comment number 1091.


    "Me thinks that coursework is a vital part of education"

    You're completely wrong - it's a cheat's charter especially in age of the Internet and Helicopter parenting.

    "it allows the student to stretch their mind"

    It allows them to cheat which is exactly why it's going.

    "what would issac newton think?"

    Scrap all course work and award grades on passing final exams just like I had to.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1090.


    Kids from working class backgrounds who attend top universities get better grades than those attending from middle class backgrounds, which kinda suggests to me on a level playing field they are actually acedemically superior. The state school system is NOT a level playing field. Fix that and we will have equality.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1089.

    Tax; where are you living? The 1970's? Union approval? Unions are a joke in this country, they do not require approval, they do as they are told by the labour party and whoever else is in power. Get with the times, grandad.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1088.

    1048.Chris Arnfield
    " I deliberately flunked the 11plus .I have subsequently achieved a BA and BSc later in life.Single exams are not a good indicator of intelligence, but of a good memory. there is a difference."

    Any sensibly rigorous exam whether at school or university will require you to apply knowledge as well as remember facts. Both are essential skills.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1087.

    Maybe the education system should tell children how to create a CV, write a personal statement and how to manage their money instead of reading 400 year old plays about tragedy.

    These kids won't be reading shakespeare down the job centre and it's of limited use to anyone in the real world unless you are a professor at Oxford Uni or an English Teacher.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1086.

    Having employed a lady with impecable qualifications for the third year of a four year sandwich degree, I was astounded at the lack of knowledge of her degree subject and extremely poor maths and english.
    7A's and 2B's at GCSE and good A levels meant nothing.
    We sent her back to uni after 3 months and surprise surprise, she finished the year with a 2.1.
    Dumbed down at all levels, not just GCSE

  • rate this

    Comment number 1085.

    "Why was modular course work and continous asessment introduced in the first place? I don't remember the old CSE and O Level were like that."

    People have different learning styles, so course work is better for some. Some children (and adults) freeze in exams so course work gives them a way to show what they know and can do. Course work develops research and thinking skills

  • rate this

    Comment number 1084.

    is he stupid he hasnt done his homework - children already read a play and a novel i did for my GCSE'S and we had to read them cover to cover just shows he has no idea at all what children are taught!! idiot

  • rate this

    Comment number 1083.

    Trouble with that sentiment is that, whatever you say or claim, the UK's education system has been consistently downgraded by entirely independent international organisations with absolutely no axe to grind whatsoever. Of course educational needs and methods change over time; ours have changed unquestionably for the worse (despite vastly increased resources compared to 20 or 30 years ago).

  • rate this

    Comment number 1082.

    We used to have grammar schools. For those who could afford the coaching, it was possible to raise your child's score by 10 to 15 points. Yes, it did help some of the less well off to a better education, but we did look down on those who had failed. The education for the failures was not as good. Will Gove change either of these defects?

  • rate this

    Comment number 1081.

    Two questions:- did Mr Gove go to an all boys school? Is it true that girls are more successful at dealing with coursework?
    Just in case you hadn't realised; I know the answers.
    Mr R Warford

  • rate this

    Comment number 1080.

    Google has made facts nearly worthless in normal life so why put so much focus on teaching them? School should be teaching skills in problem solving and analyzing facts, not just remembering them.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1079.

    I did GCSE English (Language and Literature) two years ago and we read all of Twelfth Night, Lord of the Flies, An Inspector Calls and a poetry compilation, as well as some non-fiction texts. Older generations love to think that we have it easy (the implication being that they're much more intelligent than us), but I'd like to see them sit an A level Maths or Chemistry paper if it's so easy!

  • rate this

    Comment number 1078.

    When I was at University I did essays and they were marked properly based on the content. It formed 20% of the grade. It gaves candidates a chance to know the subject in more depth. Also encourages independent thought and self learning. It was marked harshly because you had a book in front of you. It shouldn't be dismissed because students do learn from it.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1077.

    If the exams are going to be essay based at the end of two years won't we have to teach pupils how to write for three hours? I know my sons found writing for an hour hard enough, as most of their home work, and a lot of school work, seems to be done on a pc - and in the primary school down the road, on an ipad!

  • rate this

    Comment number 1076.

    We've seen the goal posts moving constantly over decades which si no help to anyone except perhaps politicians who then claim some improvement or success, while students suffer some disaster.

    The IMPORTANT thing is long term stability and a level playing field so we avoid the....



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