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EBaccs set to replace GCSE exams, says Gove

Gove says qualifications will be more rigorous than GCSEs and concentrate on traditional academic subjects

Education Secretary Michael Gove this afternoon sounded the death-knell for GCSEs and announced their replacement by a new English Baccalaureate certificate.

He made it clear the new qualification would be more rigorous than GCSEs and concentrate on traditional academic subjects.

It will be the biggest upheaval to the secondary school examination system since the introduction of GCSEs in 1986.

Under the proposals, the vast majority of pupils will be expected to work towards an English Baccalaureate certificate - which will be given to those who obtain top grade passes in English, maths, the sciences, foreign languages and the humanities - history or geography.

The first students will sit the new English, maths and science exams in the summer of 2017 - with languages and humanities coming into force soon after following consultation.

Each subject in the Baccalaureate will be delivered by a single exam board to avoid what Mr Gove has described as a “race to the bottom” as rival exam boards compete for schools' custom by “dumbing down” exams.

Announcing the move in the Commons, Mr Gove said: “After years of drift, decline and dumbing down, at last we are reforming our examination system to compete with the world's best.”

He added: “The GCSE was conceived - and designed - for a different age and a different world.

“We know that employers and academics have become less confident in the worth of GCSE passes - they fear students lack the skills for the modern workplace and the knowledge for advanced study.

“It is time for the race to the bottom to end. It is time to tackle grade inflation and dumbing down. It is time to raise aspirations and restore rigour to our examinations.”

All the existing boards will be eligible to bid for “EBacc” - as the new qualification will be known - subjects with exams regulator Ofqual deciding which bid wins the franchise.

As far as other subjects on the curriculum are concerned, yesterday's consultation paper reveals no firm decision has been made as to what to call their qualification or how many will be subjected to the new exam franchise system - an indication of how central the five key Baccalaureate subjects are to ministerial thinking.

Other key elements of the package are as expected - modular units giving pupils the ability to constantly resit them to improve their grades will be scrapped and there will be a concentration instead on a three-hour end of course exam.

Mr Gove and Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg made it clear they were united over the proposal with Mr Clegg's office saying the main sticking point to agreement - the threat of introducing a two-tier system - had been removed.

A return to O-levels and a “son of CSE” for the less able pupils - as envisaged in original leaks of the proposals - would have led to that - as would have sticking with the current system where there are two papers in each subject, one for advanced learners and a foundation paper which can only lead to a C grade pass at best.

Initial reaction to the proposals was hostile with Labour's education spokesman Stephen Twigg warning: “Whatever the reassurances, this risks a return to a two-tier system which left thousands of children on the scrap heap at the age of 16. Why else are the changes being delayed until 2017?”

Liberal Democrats argued the delay was necessary to ensure adequate consultation and preparation time for the new proposals - rather than an attempt to put them off until after the next election.

Former Education Secretary Lord (Kenneth) Baker warned that the proposals were not radical enough - and suggested doing away with a national exam at 16 as more young people stayed on in education and training until 18.  Instead, pupils should be tested at 14 to determine their future career path.

“It's vital that schools and colleges provide education which develops practical skills and personal qualities as well as subject knowledge,” he added,

Chris Keates, general secretary of the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers, described the proposals as “entirely driven by political ideology rather than genuine debate”.

She said they had created a problem for young people taking GCSEs in the next two years.  “They have now been told publicly that the exams for which they are working on are discredited and worthless,” she added.

Key proposals:

*GCSEs to be abolished and replaced by new English Baccalaureate Certificate (EBC).

*Each of the five EBC subject areas - English, maths, science, languages - ancient and modern - and humanities will only be offered by one exam board on a five-year contract through a bidding system.

*English, maths and science certificates will be taught from 2015 with first students examined in them in 2017.  The others will be subject consultation.

*Vast majority of pupils expected to take new certificate - as with current GCSEs.  Those who might struggle to achieve it could be given until 18 to take it instead of 16.

*New certificate should be tested via end-of-course exam with coursework, controlled assessment and any other form of internal assessment abolished or kept to an absolute minimum.  Modules also to be abolished removing the right of pupils to resit them to boost their grades.

*Ban on exam aids - such as calculators for maths, periodic tables in chemistry and source materials in history and geography - to be considered so exams are true test of pupils' knowledge.

*All students not entered for the new EBC will be given a “statement of achievement” spelling out their strengths and weaknesses.  All who fail to get top grades in English and maths will continue to study these subjects until 18.