In a statement to the House of Commons on 7 February 2013, the Education Secretary, Michael Gove, has announced that he is abandoning his plan to introduce the controversial English Baccalaureate Certificates (EBC). Instead, the current GCSEs will be “comprehensively reformed” from 2015 with the first exams to be sat in 2017. Plans to appoint a single exam board for each subject have also been abandoned.

The move was announced at the same time as changes to the National Curriculum for primary and secondary schools and the introduction of new accountability measures.

Criticism of the previous reform

The consultation document proposing the changes to Key Stage 4 qualifications was first released in September 2012 with a view to “restore rigour and confidence to our exam system”, but has received much criticism since; and not only from the teaching unions, but also from the exam watchdog Ofqual, the Liberal Democrats and an  all-party education committee.

The plan to introduce the English Baccalaureate Certificate (EBC) was intended to “reverse the decline of standards”, and would replace GCSEs in what Gove considered the core subjects: English, maths, science, history, geography, and foreign languages. A pupil achieving a C grade or above in each of those six subjects would then have an English Baccalaureate, while a pupil who would not have achieved this would receive a ‘Statement of Achievement’.

However, an all-party education committee warned about the impact on less able pupils as the statement of achievement could easily become a "badge of failure". In fact, Graham Stuart, the Conservative MP who headed the committee argued he could not even see a case for dispensing with GCSEs in the first place.

In addition, criticism came from unexpected sources, as Ofqual's Chief Executive, Glenys Stacey, wrote to Michael Gove stating that that his ambitions for the English Baccalaureate certificate "may exceed what is realistically achievable through a single assessment".

Other criticism centres on the breadth of subjects in the proposed English Baccalaureate, with some concern that the increased focus on academic subjects may limit the range of other subjects and undermine their value. The changes to the GCSEs would also have marked a split between England and Wales, as Wales had recently decided to keep the GCSEs and not introduce the EBCs. However, the most significant blow came from the proposal to have a single exam board for each of the EBC subjects, as Ofqual warned against the impact this would have on competition, and concerns were voiced that a single exam board for each subject could be challenged in the courts under European Union rules.

So what will happen now?

In the speech announcing the new reforms, Michael Gove admitted he made a mistake and “embarked on one reform too far”, announcing that the GCSEs will be retained.

However, significant changes will still be introduced in three main areas, which, in many cases, retain aspects of the original proposal.

1. Curriculum:

Following inspiration from the American academic E.D. Hirsh, the Department for Education is looking to introduce a more “knowledge based” curriculum. This includes a strong focus on learning clear sets of core information in areas such as maths, science, history and literature. Gove argues that:

Unless you have a sense of our nation's political development and a decent vocabulary, and an appreciation of concepts like anointed monarchy, usurpation and legitimacy, then Shakespeare's history plays will just be fighting and shouting.

The new curriculum will therefore include a clear chronology of British and world events in history “with a proper emphasis on heroes and heroines from our past”, pre-20th Century literature in English, as well as a focus on multiplication tables, grammar and spelling.

In computing there will be a stronger emphasis on e-safety and fundamental principles of computer science, while there will be less emphasis on simple software packages (such as Microsoft Office).

In science, evolution will be compulsory for primary pupils for the first time, and there will be a stronger emphasis on practical work.

Michael Gove also confirmed that all current national curriculum subjects will be retained, as well as the addition of foreign languages to Key Stage 2. In addition, he emphasised that one of the key principles of the new national curriculum is that it is stripped back to the core so that schools can enjoy “the freedom enjoyed already by academies”.

2. Exams

The plan to include a system giving a single exam board exclusive rights to offer each EBC subject has also been abandoned, and replaced with plans to require each awarding organisation to bid for a license to run each subject.

In order to avoid a two-tiered system and to “allow students to access any grade”, all pupils will sit the same, more difficult, exam paper with the appropriate approach to assessment to vary between subjects. Some solutions may include the very brightest pupils receiving more challenging ‘extension papers’ in maths and science.

In addition, all courses will be linear with exams taken at the end of two years; there will be less coursework where possible; and extended writing questions will be added to subjects such as English and history as well as more problem-solving in maths and science.

Michael Gove claims that this “will also ensure that the achievement of all pupils is recognised, both low achievers and high achievers”.

These reforms will be introduced from 2015 with first exams to be sat in 2017; the timing of which coincides with similar changes to the A-levels.

3. Performance measures

The league tables in their current form will be scrapped, as it was argued that teachers are currently focusing too much on the ‘C/D’ “borderline” pupils at the expense of pushing students with lower or higher ability to their full potential. Michael Gove claimed that “this deceptively simple measure includes three perverse incentives”: a narrow focus on selected subjects, a temptation to select the easiest exams, and a strong focus on borderline students.

The performance measures will record whether children in each school do better or worse than children of similar ability in other schools. This new value-added measure will consist of an average score of performance in eight subjects: English and maths; three other ‘core’ subjects (the current Ebacc subjects) and a student’s three best ‘other’ subjects (such as art or music, including vocational subjects). In this value-added measure, grades will be turned into points and averaged out to give each pupil a score, thus eradicating the ‘C’ grade “cliff edge”.

Michal Gove said in his statement that the average point score measure “will incentivise schools to offer a broad, balanced curriculum.”

Reactions so far:

The announcement that the EBCs would be abandoned was welcomed by all main teaching unions as well as the opposition party.

Russell Hobby, general secretary of heads’ union the NAHT, said:

“It is good news. It is pleasing that they have listened to the weight of opinion and evidence that has been put before them. It is also important to make sure that all the subjects that make a broad and balanced curriculum are adequately catered for. That is a positive step forward.”

While the general secretary of the National Union of Teachers (NUT), Christine Blower said:

"We are absolutely delighted that Michael Gove has had to do a U-turn on this," she said.

"We have amassed a very big coalition of our own around the fact that introducing the Ebacc was entirely the wrong thing to do, certainly in the kind of timescale that Mr Gove had in mind, so we think this is a very good move and we're very pleased."

Stephen Twigg, the shadow education secretary, said: "This is a humiliating climb-down for Michael Gove but more important than that it is really good news for education”.

"It shows why he should have listened to business leaders, headteachers and experts in the first place and not come up with a plan on the back of an envelope."

Business reactions have been largely positive so far, with Neil Carberry, the CBI director for employment and skills policy noting it was “pleasing to see a shift in thinking on exam league tables which will need to encourage schools to focus on the performance of every child.”

There are some initial questions about the reforms however.

Chris Cook, of the Financial Times, argues that the new value added measures are quite complicated, involving much more sophisticated calculations, which could confuse parents. . He said, “The maths looks quite elaborate for a school accountability measure. In statistics, the best solution is the simplest. Parsimony is a virtue – especially if data is incomplete.”

In addition, a political problem may be that Michael Gove has so far spoken often about the importance of having high expectations, especially for children from poorer backgrounds, which some may suggest is at odds with this announcement that states that there will be lower targets for children with lower test results at age 11.

Michael Gove however argues that these reforms “embody high expectations” and will “create an education system that can compete with the best of the world” by helping all students achieve.

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