Three awarding bodies respond to market demand and give schools the chance to choose
The GCSE is to undergo the biggest structural change since its introduction 20 years ago.
Detailed draft specifications, published this week by all three English exam boards, show that most courses taken from next year will be modular. Pupils will be able to spread the exam units over the two-year course, with the opportunity for one resit per paper.
Most teachers face the prospect of being able to prepare pupils for exams throughout Years 10 and 11 from September 2009.
The AQA, the biggest awarding body, said two-thirds of its new GCSEs will be modular. Edexcel, the second largest board, said all but one of its new GCSEs - statistics - would be offered in a modular structure. And OCR, the third largest, announced this week that all 43 of its courses will be offered in two formats, with schools given the chance to choose whether their pupils are assessed in modular style during the course, or at the end.
The draft specifications for the new exams still have to go to the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA) for approval.
The changes bring the GCSE more into line with A-levels, all of which have been modular since 2001, although they immediately ran into charges of dumbing down.
Professor Alan Smithers, of Buckingham University, said: "One gets appreciably higher grades for modular courses for the same level of ability."
The boards have clearly responded to market demand, with modular exams seen as popular with many teachers and pupils, who are keen to learn and be assessed in bite-size chunks.
One board, the AQA, even made this explicit in its draft specifications for modern languages. These boast that the courses' "flexible, unitised structure allows students to maximise achievement".
Last week, a report for the QCA said schools choose boards mainly on the basis of which will help them improve their results most.
The reforms cover all major subjects except science, which was revised in 2006, and maths, English and information technology, which will be changed for courses starting in 2010.
The move to modular examinations will not be uniformly popular. Some 1,925 respondents to a QCA consulation last year found that while 43 per cent supported "unitisation", 35 per cent were against. There is a trend among a minority of mainly more academic schools towards non-modular exams (see A-level story, below).
Most of the courses where AQA has preserved a more traditional assessment are in more "hands-on" subjects, such as engineering, design and technology, physical education, dance, drama and art.
The modular format at GCSE also makes the prospect of multiple examining sessions in Years 9 to 13 more of a reality. Many pupils already face exams every January and June. Some also have to sit them in November and March.
Barbara Hibbert, head of history at Harrogate Grammar in North Yorkshire, said the survival of the GCSE as a non-modular exam had been an anomaly, given that resits and modules have been a feature of A-levels. "In some ways, that has made GCSEs harder than A-levels," she said. "This addresses that."
Next week: full analysis of the GCSE changes.