Education Secretary Michael Gove says enough is enough: the time has come to make GCSEs harder. Why is he taking action now and what is going to change?

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The education secretary is on a mission: to turn GCSEs into "more challenging, more ambitious and more rigorous" qualifications.

He is convinced exams have become too easy and that it should be more difficult to achieve a top mark.

In 1988, when GCSEs were introduced, 8.6 per cent of entries were awarded an A grade, but this number has now climbed to almost one in four.

Debate has raged for years over the so-called "dumbing down" of qualifications for 16-year-olds.

Are superior results a consequence of better teaching, well-designed exams and more motivated pupils, or is grade inflation responsible?

Has an abundance of coursework, with assessment over two years rather than just exams at the end, made higher marks inevitable?

'Race to the bottom'

Education Minister Elizabeth Truss made her feelings known, telling the BBC: "For too long we have pretended that students' results are getting better, whereas actually all that has been happening is that exams have been getting easier and there has been a race to the bottom between exam boards."

The exams regulator Ofqual published its proposals first. Instead of internal assessment throughout the course, there will be summer exams in most subjects, as there used to be when O-levels were the exam of choice.

There will also be restrictions on re-sits, to address concern that pupils are re-taking exams they have failed time and again, and a new marking structure replacing A*-G grades with a numbered system running from eight to one.

Ofqual told Channel 4 News it was also "committed to tackling" grade inflation. It added: "We have taken action to stabilise grade inflation and this is evident in the GCSE and A-level results from the last two years."

Mr Gove told MPs there was suspicion that tests set by some exam boards were easier than others and that "more detail in our requirements for subject content" was needed to ensure consistency.

He added: "We hope that by reducing variability in the system, we can ensure that all young people leave school with qualifications which are respected by employers, universities and those in further education."

Guidelines

The government has published guidelines explaining what teenagers should be taught.

In English literature, pupils will have to study at least one Shakespeare play, Romantic poetry, a 19th century novel, poetry from the 1850s onwards, and fiction or drama since the first world war.

The new maths GCSE will include advanced algebra, statistics, ratio, probability and geometry.

Pupils studying geography will carry out fieldwork which will be assessed in an exam.

Those taking history will have to study one of three periods: medieval (500-1500), early modern (1450-1750) or modern (1700 onwards).

New science GCSEs contain practical experiments and extended work on topics such as genetics, ecology, energy and space.

Dumbing down?

As far as the government is concerned, kids these days have it too easy. Michael Gove believes Shakespeare, now optional, should be made compulsory.

Writing in the Times, the education secretary says: "In the past, GCSE English students studied only a sliver of Shakespeare (perhaps as little as a single act of one play, which they were often tipped off about in advance)... In future all children will be introduced to the broad range of literature - including complete Shakespeare plays."

One example being bandied around is an Edexcel English paper from 2011. This examined pupils on a short extract from a Shakespeare play they were told about before they sat the test.

But Edexcel explained to Channel 4 News that this was just one part of the exam and pupils would have needed to have read the entire play to answer all of the questions.

A spokeswoman for Pearson, which owns Edexcel, said: "GCSE English candidates are assessed on their knowledge of a whole Shakespeare play in the exam.

"One part of this exam focuses in more detail on a particular act which enables us to assess their deeper knowledge of the play and the language used - but candidates are expected to demonstrate knowledge of the whole play."

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