11 Jun 2013

Major GCSE shake-up will mean tougher exams

GCSEs in England are being reformed, with tougher exams replacing coursework and a new grading structure to tackle “rampant grade inflation”.

GCSEs in England are being reformed, with tougher exams replacing coursework and a new grading structure to tackle

The exams regulator Ofqual is proposing that A*-G grades should be replaced with a numbered system running from eight to one.

In place of internal assessment, there would be summer exams in most subjects, in a nod to the old O-level system, and restrictions on re-sits.

The reformed qualifications in English, maths, sciences, history and geography would be ready for teaching in September 2015, with other subjects included a year later.

The Department for Education has also revealed details of the content of exams, with pupils studying entire Shakespeare plays, rather than extracts, and at least one 19th century novel.

Maths courses will feature more advanced algebra and statistics, biology syllabuses will place a greater emphasis on evolution and genetics, and pupils will be expected to write longer essay-style answers in history exams.

Education Secretary Michael Gove announced there would be a major overhaul of GCSEs in England earlier this year, after ditching plans to replace them with English baccalaureate certificates.

‘Race to the bottom’

His colleague Elizabeth Truss told BBC Breakfast a more rigorous system was needed.

“What we can’t do is we cannot carry on with a system that isn’t delivering, where there has been rampant grade inflation and where international league tables tell us we have stagnated compared with the rest of the world,” she said.

“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. We need to stop that happening now.”

Wales and Northern Ireland are not following England’s lead, and the education select committee says in a report it would “regrettable” if separate systems emerged. Scotland has always had its own system of exams.

Mr Gove wrote to education ministers in Cardiff and Belfast in May, saying that differences in exam structure were a “natural and legitimate consequence of devolution”.

Results controversy

In 2012, there was major controversy when teachers claimed that tens of thousands of teenagers had received lower results than expected in their GCSE English exams after grade boundaries were changed mid-year.

In its report, the education select committee lays the blame on the design of the English GCSE, in particular the exam’s modular approach and the moderation of internal assessment.

Brian Lightman, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said: “Public confidence was damaged by last year’s GCSE English results, which makes it even more important that the government gets it right with the current reforms.

“A rushed implementation that ignores the views of teachers and experts will do nothing to build public trust.”