Plans to introduce flagship new qualification to replace GCSEs are 'a bridge too far', says Michael Gove

Triumph for arts subjects as Education Secretary admits to botching reform

The extent of Michael Gove’s exam climbdown has become clear as it emerged that arts subjects will now get enhanced status – after an outcry against plans to downgrade them.

The Education Secretary unexpectedly revealed that art, music and drama GCSEs are to be placed on the same level as core academic subjects as he confirmed his embarrassing EBacc U-turn in the House of Commons. “I’m happy to acknowledge that I made an error,” he told MPs.  “I think it best to retreat.”

One ally said Mr Gove – previously regarded as one of David Cameron’s most sure-footed cabinet ministers – made a crucial mistake in failing to build more support from colleagues and the educational world for his plans to replace some GCSEs with the EBacc. The reform foundered after Mr Gove was warned that the moves were vulnerable to legal challenges and the Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, registered his strong opposition.

One ally said: “There was a failure to establish a coalition of support for the idea and he became rather isolated. The educational establishment is violently hostile.”

But friends insisted that he was “not chastened” by the retreat.A party source signalled that proposals to introduce an English version of the baccalaureate could still be included in the Conservative manifesto in 2015. He said: “If we can still get the best exam in the world here with a few tweaks we will look at it.”

The source insisted that Mr Gove believed the vast majority of his plans to overhaul the exam system remained in place. He said: “We have still done 80 to 90 per cent of what we wanted to achieve with this package and will be able to make a real difference to the quality of exams. That is what people will notice come Christmas, not the headlines about U-turns.”

Leaders of the arts world were celebrating a spectacular victory on two fronts. First, the EBacc, which would have downgraded the arts in schools by omitting them, was scrapped. Then Mr Gove introduced a new ranking measure for schools which actually boosts the importance of arts subjects.

In future, schools will be ranked on the progress their pupils have made in eight key subject areas – which could include the three arts subjects rather than just the five subjects of the EBacc (English, maths, sciences, languages and history or geography).

In addition, the new move will encourage teachers to stretch their brightest pupils to obtain A* and A passes – instead of concentrating on getting borderline C/D pupils to improve by a grade.  It will give pupils higher point scores the more they improve in a subject.

Previously, the ranking on the percentage of pupils obtaining five A* to C  passes, including maths and English, had led to teachers breathing a sigh of relief once a pupil obtained a C grade pass rather than pushing them to achieve a much higher grade.

Mr Gove said he hoped his new league table reforms would “incentivise schools to offer a broad, balanced curriculum, with high-quality teaching and high achievement across the board”.

Nigel Carrington, Vice-Chancellor of the University of the Arts London, who led arts institutions in lobbying ministers to scrap the EBacc, said: “It’s good news that Michael Gove has listened to concerns about his proposals and decided to think again.”

Nicholas Serota, the Director of the Tate galleries, said: “We welcome the news that the Government has abandoned elements of its proposals to introduce a system which would have squeezed arts subjects out of the curriculum.”

Brian Lightman, General Secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said he hoped “the Government will seize with both hands this opportunity to put an end to perverse incentives which encourage schools to focus on particular groups of students or types of subjects”.

In his statement to the Commons, Mr Gove confirmed he was abandoning the EBacc and plans to have just one exam board offering each of the core subjects, recognising the plans were “a bridge too far”. Instead, he would keep GCSEs but reform them to introduce more rigour in questions and move towards an end-of-cycle examination and away from coursework.

The changes would be introduced in 2015 – the same timetable he had outlined for the EBacc.

Most heads’ and teachers’ leaders welcomed the surprise volte-face, with Russell Hobby, General Secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, saying: “Mr Gove has seen the warning light and slammed the brakes on just in time.”

Both the league table reforms and plans for a new national curriculum for schools – also unveiled – will now go out for consultation. The idea is to introduce the changes next year.

The curriculum: Back to basics

Children will be taught foreign languages from the age of seven and expected to recite poetry by the age of 10, under a major shake-up of the national curriculum that emphasises learning by rote and traditional academic subjects.

Michael Gove also bowed to pressure from civil rights campaigners by accepting that Mary Seacole – the Crimean War nurse – should remain part of the history curriculum, after she had been removed from an earlier draft.

In another significant change, secondary school pupils will be taught about personal finance in citizenship lessons.


From the day they start school, children should be taught to use only standard English. More weight should be given to spelling, grammar and punctuation. From the age of nine, they should be able to read poetry aloud. 


At the age of nine children should know their times tables up to 12. By the time they leave primary school, they should have started learning about algebra and geometry – and be fluent in long multiplication and division as well as be comfortable with fractions and decimals.


Primary school children will  have to be taught about evolution for the first time. Children should learn through practical experiences from the time they start school – using their local environment to study plants and animals


Lessons should give pupils a knowledge of “how the British people shaped this nation and how Britain influenced the world”.  Pupils should learn through studying the heroes and heroines of the country’s history. For five- to seven-year-olds, these could include scientists such as Sir Isaac Newton and Michael Faraday, reformers such as Elizabeth Fry and William Wilberforce, and creative geniuses like Isambard Kingdom Brunel.

Foreign languages

Children will compulsorily study a foreign language from the age of seven for the first time. They can choose from a range of French, German, Spanish, Mandarin, Italian, Latin or Greek.


Children should be able to name, locate and describe characteristics of the four components of the UK. The emphasis on teaching will be to study “the world’s most significant human and physical features”.

Physical education

Children should have learnt to swim at least 25 metres by the time they leave primary school. They should also engage in competitive sports and other activities.


They should be equipped with the financial skills to enable them to manage their money on a day-to-day basis as well as plan for their future financial needs.

Art and design

By the end of primary schooling, children should improve their mastery of techniques in drawing, painting and sculpture. As they move on to secondary school, they should learn about movements such as Impressionism and Dadaism.