The Government this week revealed potentially the biggest change to secondary exams in more than 20 years. Michael Gove, education secretary, announced yesterday that new exams known as English Baccalaureate Certificates (EBCs) will replace GCSEs in core subjects. Initially hyped as modern versions of O-levels, the exams are expected to be more challenging but also able to assess pupils of all abilities.
But what do schools need to know about them? We try to answer some potential questions.
Are EBCs replacing GCSEs altogether?
Not exactly. They are only being introduced in the existing EBac subjects at first, so English and maths, then science and modern foreign languages, then history and geography. Meanwhile, GCSEs in other subjects are expected to still be available, for the time being.
What is the timescale for their introduction?
Teaching for the new certificates in English, maths and science will begin in 2015, with the first EBCs due to be sat in 2017. So current Year 7 pupils in secondary schools will be the first cohort affected. The other EBac subjects - modern languages, history and geography - will get EBCs later, although the Government says the timetable for that has not been decided, and will be determined by the consultation it has launched.
What happens to subjects that are not in the EBac?
Some may get EBCs later. The Department for Education says that: "to ensure the benefits of this more rigorous approach to the English Baccalaureate subjects are felt across the whole curriculum, we will ask Ofqual to consider how these new higher standards can be used as a template for judging and accrediting a new suite of qualifications, beyond these subjects at 16, to replace GCSEs". What the new qualifications for subjects will be called is unclear. (Perhaps English Baccalaureate Certificates For Subjects Not In The English Baccalaureate?)
Will the exams be harder?
Yes. The exams are supposed to determine if a candidate has met a standard that is, the DfE says, "beyond the minimum level which are currently requited to achieve a C grade at GCSE - but it would still be something we believe all children with a good education should be able to achieve".
How will they be graded?
Not with As, Bs, Cs and so on any more, it seems. A leak to the Mail on Sunday suggested the new exams would have numerical grades with students results rated from 1 to 7, with 1 given to the top-performing students. The consultation says a new grading system will be needed so "there is a clear break from the past in how grades are described, so that there is no danger of confusion between a grade awarded in respect of GCSEs, and one awarded on the basis of EBCs".
Will the exams really be like O levels?
They are going to be a single set of exams, not the two tier system - like O levels and CSEs - some had feared. However, the DfE has emphasised other similarities to the old O-levels, such as a lack of modules, heavier emphasis on work in the exam hall at the end and greater difficulty level. The Government would like all the assessment of the new exams to be external, if it proves possible.
What will it mean for low-achieving students?
They will face the same exam papers as higher-achieving students, but may not be able to answer some of the more advanced questions. The possible upside of this for social mobility is that late-blooming students will not have their potential grades limited by teachers restricting them to doing foundation papers. Students who seem unable to get the full certificate will be given a "Statement of Achievement" by their school. This will set "their strengths and weaknesses in each subject, and which will help their future school or college understand what additional teaching and support the will need to be able to enter and achieve and EBC post-16".
What will this mean for floor targets for schools - the ones that put "failing" schools at risk of closure or being turned into academies?
The DfE says it will "refocus" floor targets to take into account of the new exams from 2017.
Who will provide the new exams?
Schools will no longer have a choice of exam boards. The different awarding bodies will pitch to Ofqual and the DfE for five-year contracts to provide EBCs for the specific subjects.
How will the introduction of longer exams at the end of course reduce "teaching to the test", as Gove claims?
This is open to debate. The thinking may be that the change will free teachers up from concentrating on getting pupils to pass and re-sit modular exams to roam more freely over the curriculum. Instead they will help pupils explore the subject in greater depth, before focussing on exam preparation at the end of a two year course. The alternative view is that by cutting internal assessment and introducing longer "all or nothing" exams teachers will be under even greater pressure to teach to the test.
Could Labour could scrap them if it gets elected?
Potentially, yes. Stephen Twigg, Labour's education spokesman has attacked them for being "out of date" and risking creating a two-tier system. But Labour has not yet said whether or not it will scrap them.
How can I make my views on these changes known?
You have until December 10 to respond to the consultation on Reforming Key State 4 Qualifications. Teachers unions and subject associations are also likely to respond and will seek advice from their members.