It's GCSEs, but not as we know them

14th June 2013 at 01:00
England's tougher revamped exams could retain name

British teachers will have to get to grips with at least two different sets of exams known as GCSEs, each with different grading systems, standards and content, it emerged this week.

Michael Gove, England's education secretary, unveiled his long-awaited reforms to the qualifications taken by 16-year-olds - including more detailed, tougher content - on Tuesday. Last week, a widely reported leak had suggested that the revamped exams might be known as Intermediate Levels, or I levels, to distinguish them from non-reformed GCSEs in Wales.

But there was no mention of the new name when England's reforms were announced, with all speeches and consultations continuing to refer to GCSEs.

The changes for England include:

- A*-G grades replaced with grades 8-1 and tougher pass marks.

- The end of the modular system, with all exams taken at the end of two-year courses.

- A drastic reduction in resit opportunities, with all sittings in the summer except for English language and mathematics, for which November resits will be allowed.

- A reduction in coursework, which is to be used only where exams cannot test certain skills or knowledge.

- Tiered exam papers for students of different abilities will remain only in mathematics and science.

Wales is not expected to adopt any of the changes and will retain the existing structure, content and an A*-G grading system. Northern Ireland is conducting its own separate review of GCSEs.

Mr Gove acknowledged the potential confusion in a letter to Leighton Andrews, education minister in Wales, and John O'Dowd, education minister in Northern Ireland, which was leaked last month. In it he says that the three nations need to go their separate ways on exam regulation.

It would be wrong, he writes, for "markedly different qualifications to use the same title, particularly when students holding these qualifications will be regularly crossing borders".

The Welsh government has made it clear that it intends to keep the GCSE name. This fact reportedly sparked discussions at Ofqual, England's exams regulator, about the need for a new title.

But one has failed to materialise, leading to speculation that the reformed exams could be known as "GCSE (England)". To add to the confusion, students in more than 100 different countries take international IGCSEs which have an A*-G lettered grading system.

Parliament's Commons Education Select Committee joined the debate this week, warning that ending the current joint three-nation ownership of GCSEs would be "regrettable".

Graham Stuart, Conservative chairman of the influential parliamentary committee, said: "There is a rush towards separate exam systems for England, Wales and Northern Ireland, without careful reflection on what might be lost or consensus that this is the right thing to do."


The UK Parliament's Commons Education Select Committee reported this week on last year's GCSE English grading controversy, which prompted the divergence between the systems in Wales and England. The cross-party group of MPs found that the affair had been caused by a qualification that was poorly designed under the previous government.

The controversy led to 30,000 students being awarded Ds in English GCSE rather than the crucial C grades their schools said they deserved. An appeal to have the grades overturned was dismissed in the High Court.

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