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 2315.

    It's true that I can't do mental arithmetic as fast as my father, and that my son has never met a logarithm, but then again my father used a tablet at school that was written on with chalk, and my son uses one that can access the entire planet. Different generations, different teaching. Gove has just rubbished the exams that my son is sitting right now. thanks very much.

  • rate this

    Comment number 2314.

    while this thread is still open, readers can refer to another report:


    regardless of its authenticity, we cannot deny that UK schools have pandered to low expectations.

    Apart from failing bright children, most UK schools have also failed to inspire, failed the diligent & the aspirational children.

    yet the complacent leftist anti-reformers marches on.

  • rate this

    Comment number 2313.

    The prism doe's not conform to the rules of logic. Nor do i.

  • rate this

    Comment number 2312.

    What did i say @ 2304? code it so i understand. did not mean to upset any one.

  • rate this

    Comment number 2311.

    Re 2308----enjoy Bladders; on Gold and thx for your much appreciated company and saggeracity:)))))) TC

  • rate this

    Comment number 2310.

    If i went to school today, i would most definently fail every exam
    100%, but i'm not stupid, i just do not understand, why the young
    at school have to learn all the rubbish they are teaching now adays.

  • rate this

    Comment number 2309.

    Re 2307: a little naive to say no changes, just throw money at education!!! Too many changes are disruptive but, as times and circs change, thus changes in education system are needed. And perish the thought of just throwing money at the Gove's of this world to go out and spend it on his Baccalaureat, etc etc etc.Gove has tried 3 major changes now, all of which failed in Commons.GET RID OF GOVE !!

  • rate this

    Comment number 2308.

    2306 stewing
    Agreed,goodnight all,off to watch Blackadder Goes Forth,on Gold

  • rate this

    Comment number 2307.

    If Mr Gove had done HIS homework, he would realised that, by constantly trying to change the system, he is stating that our current pupils have had a substandard education. No wonder international companies are moving out of the UK.
    If he wants to keep up with the best in Europe, reducing class sizes ( Finland = 20 for example ) and adding more money to education should be his first and only job.

  • rate this

    Comment number 2306.

    @ gerald. Ironically if they don't live here they wouldn't get into a state school. They get into independent schools because they pay or possibly still get scholarships. My daughter now works in a fairly prestigious independent school and makes some interesting comparisons with the state sector.

  • rate this

    Comment number 2305.

    2304 stormrider
    Yes,the one with a brick missing from the wall,located on the dark side of the moon I believe!
    Regards M.Gove

  • Comment number 2304.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 2303.


    the word "evidence" as in the phrase "growing evidence" used by Eton & Oxford educated David Cameron when referring to Syria?

    So what if I "get on" or if I don't?

    what difference does it make about UK exam standard?


    I agree about cultural influences. Then again my Chinese, Sri Lanka & Russian friends always compared their children's exam papers with overseas.

  • rate this

    Comment number 2302.

    @2298. Remember TS. When coursework was introduced it was a good idea and rigorously administered. However introduce leaugue tables for schools into that and you immediately have a conflict of interests.

  • rate this

    Comment number 2301.

    Re 2293--for someone who took A level English a long time ago :)), your GCSE sounds pretty wide-ranging, interesting and VERY testing to me. Given that it only equates to my O Level, and not A Level, it sounds like hard work.
    My Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing is still talked about at my old school
    ( nobody appreciated the talent:))) Very good luck in all you do--and don't get stressed AGHHH

  • rate this

    Comment number 2300.

    2299 stewing
    Was simply pointing out,that unlike our state system,our private attracts a growing number of pupils who live beyond the EU,thank god as well,many private schools would have shut or married,(not correct word)amalgamated without them.

  • rate this

    Comment number 2299.

    @2277 gerald. Sorry didn't see that. Not quite sure I follow. I don't think parents of any nationality who send their children to private school are stupid. I wish all children in this country had access to those kind of class sizes and facilities.

  • rate this

    Comment number 2298.

    Going back to topic for a moment again ( after trying to recover from trauma of someone who has denigrated Shakespeare), I have rather strong feelings that Mr Chinless Rich-Boy Gove has got a good point in getting rid of coursework as part of GCSE results.It should all be about sitting alone at that table by yourself taking an exam-not copying others' coursework, like wot some does wot go to Eton.

  • rate this

    Comment number 2297.

    2294. chinkinthearmour

    ' ... overseas competitors have a higher grading criteria than British pupils'

    Exam question for you: 'Explain the difference between assertion and evidence'.

    See how you get on.

  • rate this

    Comment number 2296.



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