GCSE Reforms: Bury Teacher Criticises Plans

11 June 2013, 14:38 | Updated: 11 June 2013, 16:47

New GCSEs will be "more challenging, more ambitious and more rigorous'', Michael Gove said today.

New GCSEs will be "more challenging, more ambitious and more rigorous'', Michael Gove said today.

The Education Secretary has published details of the content of new GCSEs in key subjects including English, maths, science and the humanities.

Under the proposals, teenagers in England will study the likes of Austen, Dickens, Shelley and Wordsworth in English Literature, advanced algebra, statistics and probability in maths and complete an in-depth study of one of three historical periods in history.

England's exams regulator Ofqual also published a separate report today setting out proposals to overhaul the structure of GCSEs.

It confirms plans to:

- Grade GCSEs on a scale of 8 to 1;

- Examine pupils at the end of their two-year-courses, abolishing the modular system which allows pupils to take papers throughout the course. Exams will only take place in the summer, except for in English language and maths, where November re-sits will be allowed;

- Cutting the number of subjects which have ``tiered'' exams - papers aimed at high and low ability students;

- Only allow coursework where exams cannot test certain skills or knowledge.

The plans have been criticised by teachers and unions who claim they are illogical.

Geoff Barton, Headteacher at King Edward VI school in Bury St Edmunds, spoke to Heart.

GCSE Changes - Headteacher Geoff Barton

Mr Barton said: "it seems to be a bit of solution to a problem that doesn't exist, because everybody knows what an A* is and what a C is, and if you're simply changing that to an 8 or a 7, I'm not sure what that's supposed to do that makes the world a better place.

The GCSE name is likely to be kept. It was recently reported that proposals were under consideration to call the qualifications 'I-levels'.

In a statement to the Commons, Mr Gove insisted that there is now a "widespread consensus that we need to reform our examination system to restore public confidence.''

"In line with our changes to the national curriculum, the new specifications are more challenging, more ambitious and more rigorous.

"That means more extended writing in subjects like English and history; more testing of advanced problem-solving skills in mathematics and science; more testing of mathematics in science GCSEs, to improve progression to A Levels; more challenging mechanics problems in physics; a stronger focus on evolution and genetics in biology; and a greater focus on foreign language composition, so that pupils require deeper language skills.''

The GCSEs will be "'universal qualifications' accessible to the same proportion of pupils who sit the exams now," Mr Gove said.

New qualifications in English language, English literature, maths, biology, chemistry, physics, combined science, geography and history are due to be introduced in England in September 2015, with teenagers sitting the first exams in the summer of 2017.

In English literature, pupils will be asked to study at least one play by Shakespeare, Romantic poetry,a 19th century novel, poetry from the 1850s onwards, and fiction or drama since the First World War, according to documents published by the Department for Education.

The new maths GCSE features advanced algebra, statistics, ratio, probability and geometry, while those students who choose to take geography will undertake two different types of fieldwork which will be assessed in an exam.

And in history, pupils will have to complete an in-depth study based on one of three periods - Medieval (500-1500), Early Modern (1450-1750) or Modern (1700 to present day). The new GCSE history course also contains no controlled assessment - coursework completed in the classroom - with exams based on extended essays and short answers.

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

Ofqual chief regulator Glenys Stacey said: "Ofqual's role is to make sure that qualifications are of high quality. GCSEs are important and valued qualifications, but we have seen over the last two years that they can be improved.

"We have a real opportunity here to put in place reformed GCSEs which are engaging and worthwhile to study and to teach.''

Norfolk MP and Education Minister Liz Truss said: "It's going to make sure those students at the lower end of the attainment scale are getting the basic literacy, getting the basic numeracy they need but it's going to stretch those at the top of the scale as well. 

"We've benchmarked ourselves against the top performing countries to make sure our new exams are up to standard. We're not just competing against people in this country we're competing against people right across the world and we need to make sure our young people have the skills and knowledge they need to compete in the global economy."

But Mr Barton disagrees: "I've never really understood this argument that we need to be in line with other countries because countries are different and contexts are different and what we will want of our young people here may be very distinctive."

Teaching unions have also raised concerns about the pace of the reforms.

Mary Bousted, general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL), said: "We want all children to succeed in education, and we need exams that are rigorous. However, the haste with which Michael Gove is pushing through huge simultaneous changes to both exams and the curriculum carries major risks that will put last summer's English GCSE debacle into the shade.

"We particularly feel for the children in their first year of secondary school who are going to be Mr Gove's guinea pigs. They will have a single year being taught the new curriculum when they are 13 and then move straight into the new and untested GCSE exam syllabus at age 14.''

Brian Lightman, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), said: "We have always agreed that it is the right time to look again at GCSEs, and most of the changes set out by Ofqual seem sensible. Where we have concerns is in the proposed syllabus.

"Simply making exams harder does not guarantee higher standards or mean that students will be prepared for a job at the end of it.

"There is a difference between an engaging curriculum that stretches and motivates students, and harder exams, which for some students could lead to disengagement, boredom and failure.''

GCSEs are taken by hundreds of thousands of 16-year-olds each year.