The revolution is coming, so what should you expect?

25th April 2014 at 01:00
England's exams shake-up is the biggest in more than 25 years

Schools in England are about to experience an exams revolution. Reforms to GCSEs from 2015 will mark the start of the biggest change to secondary assessment in the country since the qualifications were first introduced more than a quarter of a century ago.

A-levels will be changing at exactly the same time, with the end of the modular ASA2 structure, less coursework and more say for elite universities over subject content. But the GCSE changes are even more significant.

Indeed, although the name is staying, the reformed GCSE will be, in effect, a completely new qualification, very different from GCSEs in Wales and Northern Ireland and the international IGCSE used worldwide.

England's GCSEs will have a new grading system, 9-1 instead of A*-G, presenting much tougher hurdles than currently exist. And big changes will be made to the structure of GCSEs, with less coursework and a reduction in the use of tiered papers for students of different abilities. The content will also be tougher than that of existing GCSEs.

Much has already been written about the rights and wrongs of such major changes, but GCSE reform is coming, like it or not, so here we address the frequently asked questions.

Haven't we just had some big GCSE reforms?

Yes. The modular system, which allowed different papers to be taken at different times over a two-year course, was scrapped in 2013. All GCSEs are now "linear", with end-of-course exams only, which vastly reduces the opportunities for resits. Completely new specifications for history and English GCSEs have also just been introduced for teaching this academic year.

Why are more GCSE changes being made?

Because of education secretary Michael Gove's desire for new "world-class qualifications", first revealed in June 2012. They have at various times been dubbed "O-level-style exams", English Baccalaureate Certificates and I-levels, before it was finally confirmed that the GCSE tag would remain. Abandoned parts of Mr Gove's original plan include CSE-style exams for the bottom 25 per cent of pupils and a franchising system that would have meant a single exam board for each subject. But the key idea of "explicitly harder" qualifications has survived.

Will grade 1 be the highest?

No. That was the original plan, but the highest grade will now be grade 9. The behind-the-scenes rationale is that this would allow more grades to be added if further differentiation between top-performing candidates were ever needed. It also avoids the confusion of lower-numbered grades being worth a higher number of points under the new secondary school accountability system.

How will the new range compare with A*-G grades?

The new grade 4 will be equivalent to an existing grade C. That means six grades will be set at that level or above, compared with the existing four. Exams regulator Ofqual has suggested that a grade 7 could be awarded to the same proportion of students achieving an A in the final year of the old GCSEs. It has also proposed that grade 9 should be for "really exceptional" performances and awarded to just half the proportion of candidates who would currently achieve an A*.

Will 4 be the new pass grade, as grade C is now?

No. The suggestion is that grade 5 will be the new "pass grade", and that the standard will be internationally benchmarked so it corresponds to "performance in high-performing countries". But the whole idea of a single all-important pass grade is likely to diminish under a points-based accountability system that gives schools some credit for all grades they achieve, rather than just getting over the C threshold. In the end, it may be employers and FE and HE institutions who decide what really counts as an acceptable pass.

How will the content change?

The Department for Education says it will be "more stretching". Science GCSEs will include "cutting-edge" topics such as the human genome and ecology in biology, nanoparticles in chemistry, and increased content on energy and space in physics. There will be more "mathematical challenge" across the board.

In reformed modern foreign languages, most exam questions will be asked in the language being studied. History will cover "a wider range of historical periods" across three eras: medieval (500-1500), early modern (1450-1750) and modern (1700 to the present day).

What is the "national reference test"?

It will comprise annual tests in English and maths sat by a representative sample of several thousand pupils in the run-up to their GCSEs, from 2017. It is proposed that the content will be the same every year so the results can be used as an independent way of checking that GCSE standards are maintained.

Ofqual's toughened "comparable outcomes" approach means that grade boundaries will continue to be pegged to outcomes in previous years. The regulator has always said that the proportion of good grades could be allowed to rise above those expectations if it is justified, but the problem has always been how that improvement can be demonstrated without a separate measure. The national reference test could be the answer.

For full coverage of changes to GCSEs and A-levels, go to

Subject timetable

Teaching from 2015, with exams in 2017: English language and literature; maths

Teaching from 2016, with exams in 2018: Sciences; languages; geography; history; religious studies; design and technology; art and design; drama; dance; music; PE; computer science; citizenship

Teaching from 2017, with exams from 2019: All remaining subjects


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