We knew it was going to happen; it was just a matter of when. Michael Gove announced the replacement of GCSEs with a new English Baccalaureate Certificate in the House of Commons on Monday. He said, “Employers and academics have become less confident in the worth of GCSE passes – they fear students lack the skills for the modern workplace and the knowledge for advanced study.”
The new exams will cover five subject areas; English, Mathematics, Science, Languages (Modern and Ancient), and Humanities. Just how the new EBacc’s will supply students with the skills for a modern workplace has not been made clear. After all, there cannot be much demand for ancient languages in offices and workplaces.
The EBacc exams will have one exam board per subject, while modules and coursework will be largely abolished; instead one three-hour end of course exam will form a pupil’s grade. Those students who do not sit the EBacc exams will be provided with a “statement of achievement” noting their strengths and weaknesses.
The proposals have been criticised by Labour and teachers unions, the general secretary of the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Woman Teacher, Chris Keates has condemning the plans as “entirely driven by political ideology, rather than genuine debate.” However, Lord Kenneth Baker, former education secretary, believes Gove’s reforms do not go far enough, suggesting testing at the age of 14 to determine a student’s future career path.
The Guardian published a letter, highly critical of the proposals, from Kathleen Tattersall, the former chief executive of the Joint Matriculation Board, the Northern Examinations and Assessment Board, and the first chair of Ofqual. In her letter she described the GCSEs as “a qualification which gave credit to students’ achievements rather than defining most students as failures,” and said she feared the changes will ‘harm a generation of students and be detrimental to this country.’
The Liberal Democrats have backed Gove’s proposals after plans for a two-tier system had been removed. Labour’s Stephen Twigg has suggested that the delay to changes coming into force is an attempt by the Conservatives to alter the plans to include the two-tier system should they win the next general election. “Why else are the changes being delayed until 2017?” said Twigg. Earlier in the week Twigg had commented that “Labour supports rigorous exams but only if they don’t act as a cap on aspiration.” Despite such misgivings Nick Clegg has insisted pupils will not be left behind. He said the new EBacc exams would give confidence, raise standards and would not exclude.
The changes cause problems for students sitting their GCSE exams in the next few years, Chris Keates noted, “They have now been told publicly that the exams for which they are working on are discredited and worthless.” The British Dyslexia Association also spoke out against the proposals, suggesting they would have an adverse affect on dyslexic students.
Gove’s reforms will only apply in England and it is unclear whether the rest of the UK will follow his lead. Northern Ireland Education Minister, Sinn Fein MLA, John O’Dowd has announced a review of the NI GCSE system, but was highly critical of Gove, describing GCSE exams as “fit for purpose” and a “proven recognition of work, of the ability of the individual, and the ability of that individual to learn for each subject.” The chair of the NI Assembly’s Education Committee, the DUP MLA Mervyn Storey, has insisted any changes made should not be a “kneejerk reaction” to Gove’s announcement.
Welsh Education Minister Leighton Andrews said Gove’s proposals were a “backwards step” and the Welsh Government would wait until it’s qualification review was completed before considering any changes.