19th September 2012

Gove’s goodbye to GCSEs

Antonia Jennings dissects Michael Gove’s planned changes to the English exam system

After a summer of exam board screw ups and the first shrinkage in A* grades in their history, education secretary Michael Gove has announced plans to scrap GCSE examinations in favour of a qualification called the English Baccalaureate Certificate (EBC).

This new mode of assessment is designed to avoid the problems with grade inflation that GCSEs had, as well as creating an examination system that is more relevant to today’s job markets. With more than a third of GCSEs awarded an A or A* grade, Gove’s shake up of the education system aims to address problems such as these. Coming into effect in 2017, the EBC will initially be in three core subject areas – English, Maths and Sciences.

In many ways, the new EBC appears to be a return to O-levels, the pre-GCSE school leavers’ examinations. It is not modular, leaving all formal assessment to the end of the two years spent studying for them. The two–tier system (where GCSE takers can either sit the regular or foundation paper) will also be scrapped, leaving one level that provides a fair and equal system for all. There will be less pressure on students to take the exams at sixteen too, allowing a few years for less able students to catch up.

Similarly, the grading system will nod to the O-level method. Instead of letters A*-F, pupils will be awarded a numerical grade, from one to ten, one being the highest.

The change is motivated by a belief that England is not keeping up with Tiger economies such as Taiwan, Hong Kong and South Korea. Other high-achieving nations such as Finland and other Scandinavian countries are also seen to be out performing us educationally. Their higher qualified school leavers are seen to be more competent in both basic skills and more creative activities, creating a next generation that can manage a globally competitive economy.

The EBC is designed to give a well-rounded education. However, it has been argued that this will create the opposite.

Chris Keates, head of the NASUWT teachers’ union told the BBC: “The
government will have to work hard to ensure that these reforms are not the final nail in the coffin for the provision of a broad and balanced curriculum.”

The worry that these reforms will unbalance the curriculum is shared by Rosie Dammers, leader of the Manchester Young Greens who said “it is totally unacceptable for the government to implement a system that their own education secretary admits ‘a sizeable portion will leave school with no qualifications’. This policy will only lead to an increase in inequality in education.”

The National Union of Teachers have also criticised the government’s proposals, and their attitude towards education for fourteen to sixteen year olds. They have warned of an ‘inherent contradiction’ in the Coalition’s criticisms of GCSEs.

A spokesperson for the Union recently stated it was “nonsensical” to expect higher pass rates from schools while at the same time
saying that any such improvement was evidence of exams becoming easier.

The ATL teacher’s union have similarly warned the BBC that “the plans for GCSE replacements are hugely simplistic and fail to recognise the complexity of learning and teaching.”

Concerns have also been raised by parents, teachers and academics about how this new system will be adopted into the university entrance process. For example, it is unclear how universities will be able to give out appropriate offers to incoming students sitting the EBC, given they will have no prior grade demographic to work with.

Following that, the first few years of the program are bound to be unsteady, and the EBC is bound to be continuously modified.

Universities are going to have to decide how much leeway they allow for students, whilst being careful not to oversubscribe.

Similarly, they will have to decide whether to discriminate
between those who take the EBC at sixteen and those who take it later.

The system is designed to allow students to mature at their natural pace, implying that they should be ready for university at their own natural pace also.

But will universities still choose students that were mature enough at sixteen? Moreover, what preferences will they have between the
various subjects available on the EBC?

These are all questions that will have to be addressed in the run up to the EBC’s introduction in 2017.

Gove’s plans seem to all to be not sufficiently thought through; a quick solution to a multi-layered problem. Given the proposals are not due to come into effect until 2017, there is hope that between now and then they will be more carefully scrutinised and nuanced.

Gove’s nostalgia for the time he was still in education is evident, but he must realise that he has to move with the times to give his proposals credibility in today’s world.

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