Q&A: GCSE shake-up

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As England's Education Secretary Michael Gove sets out his plans to replace GCSEs with a new qualification called the English Baccalaureate Certificate, we answer some of the key questions going forward.

Why does Michael Gove want to scrap GCSEs?

Two words - grade inflation. Guarding against this and bringing intellectual rigour to secondary school examinations is the main stated reason for the overhaul.

The GCSE pass rate has risen every year since the exams were first sat in 1988. Between 2000 and 2009, the percentage of GCSEs awarded an A* to C increased by more than 10 percentage points.

The Department for Education cites research suggesting improvements in exam results have not been matched by results in independent tests, and a study from 2006 which claims GCSEs are a whole grade easier than they were a decade earlier. It also says England is slipping down international education league tables compared to other countries.

Mr Gove also argues that the GCSE is no longer a general certificate of secondary education at all. At one end, more schools, especially the independents, are steering their students towards International GCSEs because they are seen as better qualifications.

And at the other, large unspecified numbers of pupils are sitting lower level GCSEs, known as Foundation Tier Papers, he says. Those sitting these exams cannot get a higher grade than a C. However most colleges and schools will only let pupils with a B or higher progress to A-Level.

He also claims the exam boards that draw up GCSEs have engaged in a race to the bottom, in which schools seek out the easiest examinations, so as to appear better in the school league tables.

What are the key changes?

The modular aspect of the examinations, ie sitting parts of the syllabus in small chunks, will be scrapped in favour of linear exams - pupils will have to sit all their exams at the end of the course.

In fact, this is already happening for pupils starting courses this month. It means they will have to sit all their exams at the end of the course in the summer of 2014.

Under the changes, already being pushed through by England's exams regulator, Ofqual, pupils will also be banned from resitting individual unit exams. Some say the qualification has been undermined with pupils repeatedly retaking GCSE modules to boost their grades.

Pupils can also expect to be marked on the accuracy of their spelling, punctuation and grammar and their use of specialist terms. The government has repeatedly said it wants to change GCSE syllabuses so that they focus on the essential knowledge in key subjects and on in-depth study. More details are awaited on this.

The qualifications are to be set by a single exam board in English, maths, the sciences, history, geography and languages, to avoid exam boards competing to offer the easiest examinations in what has been termed a "race to the bottom".

What is changing further ahead?

All the talk is about making the qualifications tougher and to some extent more like the old O-level, with a focus on exams, more in-depth essay-style questions, broader content and less coursework.

Controlled assessments, where pupils do coursework in class under the supervision of their teachers, are being scrapped from core subjects.

Currently about a third of entrants get As and A*s. Under the "Gove-Level" - as it has been dubbed - as few as one in 10 will get the top grade which will be known as "Grade 1". However, this is not far off the proportion of entrants who get the top A* today.

And crucially any new examinations system will not be brought in before September 2015. And initially only for maths, English and science. That means pupils starting secondary school this September will be the first to sit the exams in these subjects, if the reforms proceed, in September 2017.

The timetable for the introduction of new English Baccalaureate Certificate qualifications in history, geography and languages, is to be decided after the formal consultation.

Hasn't Mr Gove said he wants a return of O-levels?

Yes. In June this year, documents leaked to the Daily Mail said he wanted to scrap GCSEs and return to an O-level-style system from autumn 2014.

This would have meant most pupils sitting what were described as "tougher" O-level style exams and less-able pupils sitting a "more straightforward" ones - like the old CSE. It also would have signalled an end to the national curriculum in secondary schools.

But after a political row broke out with the Liberal Democrats, who rejected the possibility of a system which they said "left a large number of children behind at a relatively young age", Mr Gove said he did not want to see a "two-tier system".

Since then, following behind the scenes consultations with his coalition partners, Mr Gove said the vast majority of children would sit the new exam, but they are likely to do so at different ages. He also said that the top grade would be reserved for the academically gifted.

Indeed, the new reforms were launched jointly by Mr Gove and Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg in the Evening Standard just ahead of the Commons statement explicity showing that a political consensus had been found.

What's happening in the other nations?

Mr Gove's plans relate to England only as education is a devolved matter and is under the control of the devolved administrations in Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland.

Pupils in Scotland do not sit GCSEs, but they do sit them in Wales and Northern Ireland.

Both the Welsh and Northern Irish education ministers have said they will be making their own minds up about any changes to GCSEs.

Welsh ministers are waiting to hear the findings of a review, due in November, before making any possible changes to the exams sat by their own pupils.

Wales's education minister Leighton Andrews went further and accused Mr Gove of making unilateral statements that wrecked the consensus between the nations around secondary examinations.

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