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 1135.

    Can anyone name a job where you have to write something without reference to any other source of information (internet, other people, books) for 2+ hours?
    If not what is the purpose of exams? I'm not against them but if the purpose of these reforms is to prepare children better for working life should there not be some connection between exams, the skills they develop, and real working life?

  • rate this

    Comment number 1134.

    As long as yoo can spel and reed and rite then u will be ok m8te....from Tom (aged 48 and a half)....

  • rate this

    Comment number 1133.

    Gove proposals getting the highest rated scores. On HYS? On the BBC?
    Am I really seeing this?
    Or has someone drugged my coffee this afternoon?

    Not sure I like his style or his implementation but he is at least challenging the educational orthodoxy which must be a good thing........

  • rate this

    Comment number 1132.

    I believe coursework is important- 3 hours of work is not a good reflection of how a pupil has worked for the past 2 years. I did supposed 'easy GCSEs'- it definitely required you to read two plays (1 Shakespearean), 2 novels and a selection of poetry (ours included John Donne, Andrew Marvell and Siegfried Sassoon). They're genuinely not easy exams- maybe Gove should try sitting one!

  • rate this

    Comment number 1131.

    For everyone who is saying they are 'easy', I would like them to have a go at taking 12 GCSE's at once and see how they do. It's just making it seem like the grades of the students who have done well are worthless and that anyone could do them. If that was the case everyone would be coming out with A*'s. Also I had to do a whole Shakespeare play and whole novels so that is nonsense.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1130.

    I am sure the number of universities has doubled in the last 20 years or so . in my day it was hard to get into a university and you had to be intelligent to do so . perhaps there is money to be made at them now and that's why their number has increased and the entry levels have been reduced . imo harder exams and less university places would mean brighter young things coming out .

  • rate this

    Comment number 1129.

    ... the GCSE's that the current year 11's take are already hard enough because I know, I am in my first year at collage.
    I assume they made them harder since you did them.

  • Comment number 1128.

    All this user's posts have been removed.Why?

  • rate this

    Comment number 1127.

    Why do he do this Is he trying to provoke a reaction. A sensible policy that the number of people achieving the higher grades will slowly be reduce and that in core subject at least 80% of the mark will exam based.

    Lets not talk about the costs of re-branding and modifying all the current GCSE material.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1126.

    I agree the way it was with O Level was it was a bell curve of a range of grades over a curve of all who took the paper, and not an absolute mark that determined the grade so today with so many getting 90+% in their GCSE they had to introduce the A*. If they go back to normalised over a curve then there is no need to extra grades and it stops grade inflation too.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1125.

    The usual back-of-an-envelope reforms by an attention-seeking, greasy-pole climbing secretary of state, all infused by the kind of bar-stool philosophy that goes down well in the country pubs with people who don't have to teach this stuff. Does anyone really believe that Keats and Wordsworth are the answer?

  • rate this

    Comment number 1124.

    Regarding the matter of being required to read entire novels or plays: I think some people are misunderstanding the new proposed guidelines.

    The proposed changes are not to the course requirements, but to the exam questions, i.e. they are to be tightened-up to ensure that the students are tested on the entire works, rather than just key points.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1123.

    With the reduction in government funding for Higher Education the sector has become dependant on the increased intake of 'qualifying' students. If exams have become easier rather than pupils smarter these changes will greatly reduce intake and hence funding with the resulting financial failure of institutions. Failure reduces confidence too. Where does that leave the country for NEETS?

  • rate this

    Comment number 1122.

    And next month the plan is....

  • rate this

    Comment number 1121.

    I think it says it all when a university is offering a degree in car salesmanship. Things have to change across the board. The average 16 year old in Malaysia,Hong Kong,Singapore and South Korea is able to handle calculus with ease.Most kids here don't even know what it is.
    To do nothing about the education system is no longer an option.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1120.

    About time someone in the political class got to grips with this problem. The process of diluting the value of our exams started in the eighties. A Thatcher legacy. The pass grades lowered, course content weakened. How do I know? I was inside the system, now retired thankfully. The result ..need to import skilled and qualified from abroad. Our own children let down, education a political football.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1119.

    1098.abbielouise96 : 'I too am a current GCSE student, and at my school I already study a Shakespeare play, two poetry modules and 18th century books amongst others. 'Coursework' was scrapped 3 years ago, and controlled assessments are essay based questions.''

    abbielouise96, I suggest that you write a letter of complaint to Gove re DfE* 'coursework cheating'' claims. Clearly a Tory DfE myth!

  • rate this

    Comment number 1118.

    #1105: "She had to read Romeo and Juliette all the way through, more then once."

    Oh my goodness, reading a play *all the way through*, more than once - amazing!!

    When I was doing O-level Eng Lit we studied Macbeth, Julius Caesar, Merchant of Venice and Twelfth Night. Those of us in the top stream also studied both parts of Henry IV and Henry V.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1117.

    I'm currently doing GCSEs, & I completely disagree with "exams are easy". For example, in English, we already had to learn 10-15 poems for our exam. And as for this nonsense saying students don't need to read the whole book they're studying, of course you do! (If you want to get more than a C, that is)
    Nobody has the right to say sweeping statements about GCSEs unless they've done them themselves.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1116.

    Re-introducing "o-levels" is just pandering to the older generation who want to see things return to how they were in the "good old days".


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