Michael Gove's Exam Reforms Score High Marks with Academics

Thursday 20th September, 2012: Dr Sheila Lawlor writes, this week Michael Gove, the Education Secretary, announced an end to GCSEs. They are to be replaced by an English Baccalaureate in core subjects, English, maths, science (to begin with) followed by foreign languages, history and geography. The aim is to restore to the exam at 16 the rigour of the 'O' level and to raise the standards of public exams to those of comparator countries. The modular exam will go, and pupils will take the whole Bacc at the end of two years of study.

Although Mr Gove is said to have dropped a plan for a second tier of exams for the less able after pressure from the Liberal Democrats, teachers' unions maintain that the change will nonetheless lead to a 'a two-tier system'. Pupils, they say, who do not gain EBaccs will leave without plausible qualifications.

What critics fail to acknowledge is that the GCSE itself is not plausible. It has set a false measure for pupils in this country and contributed to declining educational standards. (The most recent international tests for PISA show standards among our 15 year olds continue to fall in the most basic subjects, reading, maths and science.) It has failed a generation who drop out of education and training and can’t find a job – around 16 percent of 16-24 year olds. And it fails those who aspire to train or continue learning after 16, lowering the bar below that of other similar countries (as Politeia’s comparative study Academic and Vocational 16-19 showed). It is wrong of the critics, especially the unions and the Labour Party to play politics with the exam system. They and the Liberal Democrats should learn from the lessons of Britain’s competitor countries rather than resort to the prejudices which destroyed opportunity for all.

Success will depend on how the exam specifications are drawn up and by whom; whether the robust nature of the proposal will survive (see my introduction in Politeia's pamphlet Lessons from History); however, this week the principle of reform has been welcomed by many of the UK's respected scholars and teachers and below we include the comments of two Politeia authors, Professor David Abulafia and Professor Jonathan Clark.


It's always interesting to see the opposition, which sees itself as progressive, attacking change. Education isn't about being kind all the time to those who are in difficulties - stricter marking systems are essential, and can easily be introduced by establishing a new scale not based on the debased letters A* to F. The creation of the EBacc shows imagination and an awareness of the precipitous decline in standards in key subjects on which the future of the country depends. It is a pity that languages do not figure in the initial list of EBacc subjects. The British Academy has been campaigning vigorously for adequate language teaching, and it's easy to be complacent when one speaks the major world language.

David Abulafia, Professor of Mediterranean History at Gonville and Cauis College, Cambridge.



Michael Gove's recent announcement represents the most promising initiative in curriculum reform for many decades.

First, the decline in the performance of English schoolchildren against international measures has not until now been seriously addressed by the educational establishment. I am puzzled by the denigration of the old O Level by those who can have had no experience of it. For the academically inclined, I remember that Sir Herbert Butterfield, Regius Professor of Modern History at Cambridge, argued that performance at O Level was best predictor of later results at degree level. So it may be that a rigorous exam at age 16 is perfectly feasible.

Second, for those not academically inclined, we should re-examine the criticism of a 'two-tier system'. It now seems clear that the majority of victims of GCSE grade inflation were the academically less able, coerced into a system that gave them academic qualifications of doubtful value but that denied them intellectually and financially valuable practical training in a host of areas. Here as elsewhere, traditional British trade unionism arguably fails the very sectors of society that it claims to defend.

Jonathan Clark, Hall Distinguished Professor of British History at the University of Kansas; he previously taught at Cambridge and at Oxford.


David Abulafia and Jonathan Clark both contributed proposals for a new history curriculum for Politeia's study Lessons from History.