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Q&A: The English Baccalaureate Certificate

By This is Devon  |  Posted: September 18, 2012

Under the EBacc, pupils will sit all their exams at the end of the course and be marked on their spelling and grammar

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GCSE exams are to be replaced by a qualification known as the English Baccalaureate Certificate (EBacc), the education secretary Michael Gove has announced.

In what onlookers are calling the biggest shakeup of the exam system for English secondary schools in a generation, GCSEs, which were introduced in 1986, are to be scrapped.

In their place will be a qualification based on performance at the end of a two-year course rather than on pupils' results in modules, and with fewer resits permitted.

But what is the EBacc, and what will the changes mean? Find out with our simple guide.

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The key changes

The changes, which are subject to a consultation, include:

No more modules: As it stands, secondary school pupils sit part of the syllabus in chunks, known as modules. This aspect of the examinations will be scrapped, and pupils will instead sit all their exams at the end of the course.

Gove maintains modules encourage "bite-size learning and spoon-feeding", and that the single exam will mean pupils are "tested transparently on what they and they alone can do at the end of years of deep learning".

Tough exams at the end of study will, Gove maintains, end "grade inflation and dumbing down".

Fewer resits: Some maintain the GCSE has been diluted by the ability to repeatedly retake modules. In a bid to tackle this, under the EBacc pupils will be banned from resitting individual unit exams.

Less coursework: Under the changes, coursework will be reduced to a minimum. But, the Guardian reports, the government insists the changes will not signal the death knell for all coursework in practical subjects such as music, art or design and technology, or oral tests in languages.

The end of grades?: According to the Guardian, “traditional grades of A* to C are likely give way to numeric marks or even percentages.

“Gove is highly critical of the way around a third of pupils are awarded A to A* GCSE grades. He is keener on numeric grades that could see around 10% of pupils awarded the top grade 1.”

Spelling and grammar: Pupils will be marked on the accuracy of their spelling, punctuation and grammar and their use of specialist terms, the BBC reports.

One subject, one board: As it stands, all three major exam boards in England currently offer GCSEs.

However, the Government plans to stop exam boards competing for business by making exams increasingly achievable. Consequently, there will be only one exam board for each subject.

They will have to bid for five-year contracts to run individual subjects exclusively.

Gove will have the final say in choosing the new exam boards after a recommendation from Ofqual, the Guardian reports.

The end of league tables: The reforms will also mark the demise of GCSE league tables, the Guardian reports.

When will the changes come into force?

From the autumn of 2015 pupils will be taught for the new EBacc in English, maths and science, according to the Guardian. These will cover seven papers: English language, English literature, maths pure and applied (with an additional maths option), chemistry, physics and biology.

The new exam will be sat for the first time in these subjects in the summer of 2017. There will be no coursework in English and maths, as modules are scrapped.

There will be some coursework in science to factor in the significance of laboratory work.

From 2016, pupils will be taught for the new EBacc in history, geography and languages. Pupils will sit the exams in the summer of 2018.

There will be no coursework for history. Field trips in geography will continue to form part of the examination process, and there will be flexibility on oral exams for languages.

Gove hopes exam boards will ditch GCSEs in other subjects once the new system is fully established.

Who will be affected?

The Daily Telegraph reports all 16-year-olds will be expected to take the English Baccalaureate subjects of English, maths, science, one humanities subject and one language.

Those who struggle to pass exams at 16 will have another change to take them at 17 or 18.

What does this mean for the last pupils sitting GCSEs?

Chris Keates, general secretary of the teachers' union NASUWT, said young people taking GCSEs over the next two years had been "told publicly that the exams for which they are working on are discredited and worthless".

The Guardian reports: “Gove told MPs that there would be an ‘enhanced’ system for pupils who struggle with the new exams.

“But he confirmed that many would leave school without qualifications. ‘We expect that everyone who now sits a GCSE should sit this new qualification.

‘But of course there will be some students who will find it difficult to sit these exams, just as there are students who do not sit GCSEs today.

‘We will make special, indeed enhanced, provision, for these students with their schools required to produce a detailed record of their achievement in each curriculum area at 16, which will help them make progress subsequently – and we anticipate some will secure EBacc certificates at the age of 17 or 18.’”

What are the potential pitfalls?

A ‘two-tier system’: Christine Blower, general secretary of the National Union of Teachers, said: "What is being proposed here is blatantly a two-tier system.

“Pupils who do not gain EBaccs will receive a record of achievement which will most certainly be seen to be of far less worth by employers and colleges."

According to the Guardian, “traditional grades of A* to C are likely give way to numeric marks or even percentages.

“Recording the percentage pass mark will allow universities to distinguish between top candidates, but it could penalise students for the slightest variation.”

But Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg insists the new system will not be two-tier. "There are many people who think that if you want to make the system more rigorous, you have to leave some behind, but I disagree,” he said.

“I think you can have greater rigour in the exam system, that's a good thing, but also ensure we can cater for all children, the same way the present exam does."

‘Disillusioned’ students: The Daily Telegraph reports teachers are “worried that those sitting GCSEs now will be disillusioned.”

'Knee-jerk reaction' : Some teachers in the West fear the move is a reaction to the view of some people that examinations are getting easier.

‘Girls will suffer’: The Telegraph also says: “Teachers are concerned that girls will suffer most as they traditionally do better at coursework”.

Meanwhile shadow education secretary Stephen Twigg told MPs in response to Mr Gove's announcement in the Commons: "The best system does involve coursework and project work.

“Surely our system should value skills as well as knowledge?"

A 'return to the 80s': Twigg also told MPs that ditching coursework was "totally out of date".

"The education leaving age is rising to 18,” he said. “We need to face the challenges of the 21st century.

"But I simply don't accept that we achieve that by returning to a system abolished as out of date in the 1980s.

"Instead, we need a system that promotes rigour and breadth, and prepares young people for the challenges of the modern economy."

‘Simplistic’ plans: Martin Johnson of the ATL teachers' union warned the BBC: "The plans for GCSE replacements are hugely simplistic and fail to recognise the complexity of learning and teaching."

The end of a balanced curriculum?: Chris Keates, head of the Nasuwt teachers' union, told the BBC: "The government will have to work hard to ensure that these reforms are not the final nail in the coffin for the provision of a broad and balanced curriculum."

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