The exams face their biggest revamp since they started 20 years ago. Last week we reported how most exams will change in 2009 from the traditional end-of-course test to a modular structure. Here we look at how their content will change - with such additions as the war in Iraq and action adventure movies - and at the new system for coursework
Tony Blair has repeatedly said that history will be the judge of whether he took the right decision to join the Americans in invading Iraq. That moment has arrived sooner than he might have expected: England's teenagers are to be given the opportunity to weigh the evidence for themselves in the new GCSE.
The OCR's syllabus is perhaps the most eye-catching of the revised exams, published in draft form for most subjects by the three England boards for first teaching in 2009.
The core of OCR's syllabus B course covers international relations from 1948 to 2005, with a section entitled "What is the significance of the Iraq war?". Pupils will be encouraged to consider the debate on weapons of mass destruction, Saddam Hussein's alleged links to terrorism, Iraq's post-war condition, and the international consequences of the war.
The incursion into modern-day political argument does not stop there. There is a separate section asking "How effective has terrorism been since 1969?" Pupils are asked to consider why people become terrorists and why terrorism is "generally condemned". They are also asked about the IRA, Yasser Arafat, the former Palestinian leader, and the "war on terror".
Pupils taking Edexcel's syllabus B will be able to analyse the London terrorist bombings of July 2005 in a section on crime and punishment.
Sean Lang, honorary treasurer of the Historical Association, said the boards stood to capture pupils' interest by promoting a strikingly contemporary debate. But teachers would need a lot of support dealing with such emotive territory.
"Clearly, teachers will be very concerned to get the teaching of this right, because the consequences of getting it wrong can be serious," said Mr Lang.
When the Government decided to send An Inconvenient Truth, Al Gore's film on global warming, to schools, it faced criticism from climate-change sceptics. Those sceptics may be even more upset by Edexcel's new syllabus A exam, which emphasises sustainable development and climate change.
Among the key aspects of knowledge which it says pupils should be taught are that "sustainable development is a key strategy for the survival of the planet and its people".
They are also expected to be taught that "the earth's climate appears to be changing as a result of human activity", and that "the future of rural areas needs to be managed more sustainably".
Rita Gardner, director of the Royal Geographical Society, said: "I am fully in support of the fact that sustainable development and climate change are taught. It is very important that teachers teach them in a balanced way, with a good science context but also a discussion around alternative interpretations."
Edexcel's new GCSE courts controversy. Pupils are told to recognise how physical activity "enhances body shape", as well as helping people to "feel and look good".
However, The TES understands that the board is considering changing these statements, after we raised them with Beat, the eating disorders association.
Tony Scott, Edexcel's chief examiner for PE, said that the draft specification reflected the fact that many people took part in exercise because they wanted to improve their body shape.
OCR garnered media coverage last week for including ice dancing.
There will be a widely trailed move away from end-of-course oral exams to continuous assessment.
Schools will be given a set of suggested speaking "tasks", which they can adapt and can give to pupils throughout the two years of the course. Pupils will be able to select the one with the best marks to count towards their grade. They will also have the opportunity to take a short course in either the spoken or written aspects of the language.
A new GCSE in control systems is causing particular excitement among design and technology teachers. The Design and Technology Association said the OCR's course was an attempt to get away from the overly "linear" character of GCSEs in which pupils have been encouraged to work through a rigid design plan with the aim of steadily accruing marks.
OCR's exam encourages group-work and the use of ICT. The association said it hoped this would encourage more risk-taking among pupils in their approach to the subject and help them to gain a more realistic idea of the way professional projects worked.
The use of technology is also being encouraged here. Pupils taking the AQA and OCR versions of the exam are to be given the option of working with computer graphics, multimedia and design websites. AQA's version also includes a new "architectural design" element.
James Bond and agony aunts could be among the topics studied under this banner. The textual-analysis unit of OCR's course now includes two parts: action-adventure films or lifestyle magazines, and media topics such as TV and radio comedy.
Pupils will be shown an unseen extract from an action-adventure film, lasting between three and five minutes. This could be taken from any film in the genre: James Bond, Indiana Jones or computer-generated epics such as The Mummy.
They will then be required to analyse this extract and to place it within the broader context of the genre and consumer expectations.
Pupils no longer have to prove they have the ability to perform on stage if they are studying towards the AQA specification. As with the Edexcel syllabus, they may be assessed either on acting, or on support roles, such as lighting, or costume and set design.
AQA is billing the option as increasing pupils' freedom of choice. The OCR drama specification is now broken into units in which pupils are allowed to carry out controlled assessments either on their own, or in pairs.
Humanism is being introduced into a GCSE course for the first time, as part of OCR's syllabus B exam. Pupils can choose whether or not to study humanism, then one or two of six other religions.
A second, more traditional exam is also offered by the board, in which pupils can study Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism and Sikhism.
AQA's syllabus A has two units specifically on Roman Catholicism. Its syllabus B allows pupils to consider debates from a religious perspective, including the use of drugs in sport, binge-drinking and the multiculturalism debate.
Pupils taking the OCR examination can now be assessed on rapping, dance music, sequencing, beatboxing and freestyle DJ-ing.
Meanwhile, AQA is giving a greater weighting to performing, individually or in groups, over theory. "We know most students choose music because they want to perform; we want to reward and recognise their ability and enthusiasm," the draft specification says.
A high-tech option has been introduced for those studying ancient texts. Pupils doing the translation and comprehension unit of the Latin course, in which they must demonstrate familiarity with the language of classical authors, will be able to complete the test on a computer. Other changes include an option to take a short-course version of the exam by completing two of its five equal-sized units instead of the standard four. Latin verse is no longer compulsory.
New GCSEs in English, maths and ICT will not be launched until 2010 because of a delay in finishing new functional skills tests.
- For full details of the new GCSEs, visit www.aqa.org.uk
www.edexcel.org.uk; and www.ocr.org.uk.
NO HIDING PLACE FOR COURSEWORK
It is coursework, but not quite as you might have known it. The new GCSEs replace all coursework with what is officially being termed controlled assessment.
For marks to count towards their final grade, pupils will no longer be able to get away with unsupervised work done on the internet or at home with the help of parents. Teachers may be relieved that for many subjects, they will not have to keep chasing up uncompleted assignments.
But, overall, how do the new arrangements differ from the previous ones?
The history specifications offer an insight into what the new "non-coursework" entails. Under all three boards, pupils will be taught about a topic, carry out research, and then face a teacher-assessed exam on it. They will have to complete this in class, under supervision, although the time varies from a two-hour assessment with Edexcel to up to eight hours with OCR.
Pupils will be allowed to write up notes beforehand for use within the controlled assessment, while Edexcel allows a one-page plan, although it bars "pre-prepared" drafts of answers.
Other subjects will demand more conventional coursework under supervision. For business studies GCSEs, for example, pupils will be given an investigative task to research and will then be asked to write it up in class.
In geography, pupils may complete a fieldwork investigation and be assessed on their reports.
More hands-on subjects, such as design and technology, music, art, drama and physical education, retain an assessed practical or performance aspect as central to the course.
Many teachers have used essay plans or writing frames to advise pupils what to write for conventional coursework. But OCR specifically rules these out in its geography coursework, warning that "teachers must not provide templates, model answers or written feedback on drafts".
Ministers ordered the changes amid concerns that there were not enough checks on pupils plagiarising from the internet or receiving help from parents.
John Bangs, head of education at the National Union of Teachers, said he would have liked teachers to be able to "choose the type of coursework that their pupils need". He also wants a proper audit of the workload implications of controlled assessment.