UK education secretary Michael Gove to drop GCSEs in favour of new O-level-style exams

Friday, June 22, 2012

Michael Gove, the UK's education secretary.
Image: Paul Clarke.

According to documents leaked to the press, Conservative education secretary Michael Gove intends to drop GCSE exams as part of a sweeping reform of the school exam system in England and replace them with exams based on the traditional "O-level" system that GCSEs replaced in the 1980s.

As leaked, Gove plans to phase out the current General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE) exams, with students taking exams in the replacement courses in the summer of 2016. Combined science courses would be split out into separate qualifications in physics, biology, and chemistry. Gove has said reforms to the examination system are needed to fight against what he perceives to be a "dumbing down" of academic standards.

The top 'A' grade in mathematics would require advanced topics such as Calculus, and English literature exams would no longer allow access to the set text.

I can hardly think of a worse education reform than 'bringing back the CSE' - dead-end exams for children treated as second rate.

—Andrew Adonis, Labour Peer

The leaked document also notes the government intends to scrap the National Curriculum at the secondary school level "and not replace it". Instead, school headteachers would be able to decide what to teach in order to prepare pupils for the examination.

Nick Clegg, the deputy prime minister, said the plans were "self-evidently not policy that has been discussed or agreed within the coalition".

Justice minister Ken Clarke suggested on BBC programme Question Time the leak originated within the Department of Education rather than from Gove personally: "If the secretary of state for education leaked it I would feel very strongly about it, but I don't think he did".

Conservative MP Graham Stuart has questioned the timing of the plans given reforms to GCSEs last year. "This has come out of the blue", he said to BBC Radio 4. "Just last year, the government was ramping up its new GCSE target and now a year on we are having to change back to the future, and back to O-Levels."

Kevin Brennan, Labour's shadow schools minister, said Gove's proposals were a move "back to the 1950s".

the current system needs improving ... some GCSEs really don't stretch the very brightest

—Dr Wendy Piatt

Andrew Adonis, a Labour Peer, criticised the plans on Twitter: "I can hardly think of a worse education reform than 'bringing back the CSE' - dead-end exams for children treated as second rate." Nick Clegg mirrored this complaint, saying he would oppose any plan "that would lead to a two-tier system where children at quite a young age are somehow cast on a scrap heap".

Dr Wendy Piatt from the Russell Group, which represents a number of top-end British universities, agreed with Michael Gove that there is a problem: "the current system needs improving", she told ITV's Daybreak, because "some GCSEs really don't stretch the very brightest". Piatt warned "there is a real danger here... there is a worry that at a very early age you will be pigeonholed and then put on a course that is not really suitable for you and then you won't be able to change to the more academic course".

Do you think the UK government should drop GCSE exams?

Dr Kevin Stannard from the Girls Day School Trust challenged the plans, suggesting since "able pupils" are already going to continue studying some subjects, "why not require them to take exams at 16 only in the core subjects that they propose to drop? That would encourage breadth in learning to 16, while also giving students the space for deeper learning."

Leighton Andrews, the Education Minister in Wales, said Wales "certainly won't be bringing back O-levels" and leaking the plans to the newspapers was a "bonkers way of proceeding". Instead, he vowed the Welsh would make decisions as to curriculum and exam reform "in our own time on the basis of evidence supplied to us".