Michael Gove unveiled a symphony of major and minor reforms to the way GCSE examinations are conducted in England, saying the new exam-only qualifications with an emphasis on Shakespeare and British history would equip the nation’s children to perform in the modern world.
At the heart of the most significant package of reforms since GCSEsreplaced O-levels 30 years ago is the end of marking by assessment to cure what Gove called the “structural problem” in the exam normally taken by 16-year-olds.
In its place comes a return to final examinations as the sole measure of a pupil’s success at the end of a two-year GCSE course – with the exception of science, which retains a small assessed practical element.
The Department for Education released a raft of subject consultation papers outlining the new content to be examined. English literature students will be required study at least one full Shakespeare play, as opposed to extracts. For those studying history there will be a “substantial and coherent element of British history and/or the history of England, Scotland, Wales or Ireland,” making up a minimum of 40% of the syllabus.
Despite the traditionalist emphasis, there were apparent concessions to come critics. The consultation papers carried multiple references to the study of climate change in both biology and geography. Climate change had been a controversial omission from consultation over reforms to the national curriculum, but Gove’s department left references to the issue unaffected at GCSE level.
The education secretary argued that the content of the revised examinations was pitched at a more sophisticated level than current GCSEs, especially in sciences and maths. “By making GCSEs more demanding, more fulfilling, and more stretching we can give our young people the broad, deep and balanced education which will equip them to win in the global race,” Gove told the House of Commons.
The old style of GCSEs and their reliance on coursework assessment had been open to abuse, Gove claimed. He said last year’s GCSE English marking debacle, which caused tens of thousands of pupils to resit their exams, “proved beyond any doubt that the current system requires reform”.
Brian Lightman, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, which represents many secondary school headteachers, said Gove’s insistence on a single, untiered final examination to cover all pupils – from those with learning difficulties to potential Oxbridge candidates – presented an immense challenge.
“Simply making exams harder does not guarantee higher standards nor mean that students will be prepared for a job,” he said. “Harking back to a bygone era by replicating O-levels, which were designed for a very narrow cohort in a completely different economic context, is certainly not the way to a world-class education service”
The first cohort of 600,000 GCSE candidates will study under the new regime from 2015, with the first examinations in the core subjects of English, science, history, maths and geography coming in 2017. The reforms do not affect Wales and Northern Ireland, which are retaining the old GCSE system; Scottish students sit exams under a separate system.
Mary Bousted, of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, said she was concerned for pupils she called “Mr Gove’s guinea pigs” given the haste at which the reforms were being introduced. “End-of-course exams on a single-day test recall and memory rather than the range of skills that young people need in the 21st century,” she said.
The examination changes come at the behest of Ofqual, England’s qualifications regulator, which confirmed earlier reports of a new marking system for GCSEs running from eight as the highest to one as the lowest, replacing the current range of A* to G. “We want to see qualifications that are more stretching for the most able students, using assessments that really test knowledge, understanding and skills,” said Glenys Stacey, the head of Ofqual.
Gove’s announcement in parliament received words of support from different ends of the Labour party. Stephen Twigg, Gove’s opposite number, blasted the education secretary for having his fourth “resit” at GCSE reform, but David Blunkett and Diane Abbott spoke in favour of the plans.
Blunkett was grudging, saying the reforms were “not as bad as some feared” before questioning Gove over examination details, while Abbott was more effusive in agreeing for the need for “rigourous” qualifications.
“Mr Speaker, I’m in love. The honourable lady is absolutely right,” Gove replied.
Much of the debate following Gove’s statement revolved around the rift between education policymakers and regulators in England and their counterparts in Wales and Northern Ireland, who have insisted on retaining elements such as modular courses that have been rejected in London.
Gove told the Commons that the new course content prescriptions would enforce consistency among the different examination boards that offered GCSEs. That should end the “suspicion and speculation that some exam boards were ‘harder’ than others”, he said.
He quietly announced via the DfE website that the government intended to “disapply” elements of the existing national curriculum from September 2013. That means that from the start of the new school year until the planned introduction of the new curriculum in September 2014, maintained schools will be operating without the structure of a national curriculum