EBacced down - but it’s time to build a broad consensus about exams and not crow about U turns

Janet Downs's picture
Plans for English Baccalaureate Certificates (EBCs) have been abandoned following intense criticism from state and independent schools, business leaders, unions, academics, subject organisations, ex-schools minister Sir Kenneth Baker, Ofqual and the Education Select Committee.

Stephen Twigg described the decision as a humiliating climb down for Michael Gove. But ex-schools minister Nick Gibb said the change in policy was a “tweak”. GCSE would still be reformed and would become a rigorous exam, "one of the best in the world".

Perhaps it’s time to remind Gibb and the Government that no exam at 16+ can match the world’s best because most of the developed world has moved to graduation at 18. And while these countries have a broad, balanced curriculum* until 16, they don’t generally use high-stakes tests to measure pupils’ achievement** at this age.

Twigg told Radio 4’s Today programme that he hoped Gove’s new proposals for a reformed GCSE wouldn’t introduce a two-tier exam system like the old CSE and GCE O levels. Gove’s proposals, therefore, will need to be carefully analysed.

But perhaps now is the time to abandon plans to reform GCSE and move towards final exams at 18. This would allow pupils to study a broad, balanced curriculum until age 16 without the pressure of high-stakes tests in a wider range of subjects than is expected in most of the rest of the world**.

While it’s tempting to crow about Gove’s U turn, this should be resisted. It IS time to reform the exam system. GCSEs were established when most children left school at 16. Now they do not. And the participation age (RPA) is being gradually raised to 18: young people will be expected to be in education, training or employment.

Now is the time to build a consensus about the exam system, the underlying curriculum and accountability. Tomlinson (2004) recognised that it would take at least ten years to get a properly-evaluated and trialled exam system up-and-running. Teachers need to be trained. Any new system needs explaining to children, parents and employers. If Tomlinson’s recommendations had been implemented by the then Labour Government this country would have been only two years away from a world-class system.

But Tomlinson was shelved. That doesn’t mean that the report's ideas shouldn’t be considered along with more recent suggestions such as those of Essex head, Tom Sherrington, and exam systems in other countries**. But it’s important to get everyone on board. An exam system imposed centrally without meaningful consultation with all interested parties will not be fit for purpose.

But an exam system built up carefully over a period of years which caters for the needs of all school-leavers would really be one that matched the world’s best.

*See pp 4-6, DfE Memorandum to the Education Select Committee, for overview of the curricula in several jurisdictions that score highly in PISA and two emerging economies (China and Brazil). Note: jurisdictions are part of a country (eg, a state or province). They are not whole countries.

**See faq above What are the examination systems in other countries?

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