GCSE Reform and the New English Baccalaureate Certificates

26 September 2012

GCSE Reform and the New English Baccalaureate Certificates

Last week we saw the Secretary of State for Education make a set of announcements about his plans for further reform of the education system. In a press conference on Tuesday Michael Gove claimed that the current GCSE system is ineffective and said it is characterised by ‘decline, drift and dumbing down’. This post gives you the headlines of the changes he wants to make, details of the consultation and some of the implications for arts and cultural subjects.


To fully understand these new reforms it’s worth casting an eye over the Department of Education website to remind ourselves of the particulars of the English Baccalaureate (EBAC) – a performance measure introduced in January 2011 that incentivises schools to teach five particular subject areas at GCSE; English, Maths, Science, Humanities (History or Geography) and a Language.

Up until this week this has just been a performance measure for schools, with every establishment needing to report in league tables on the number of students who achieve grade C or above at GCSE level in these five areas.

What has he announced?

The Secretary of State’s announcement included a number of interlinked proposals:

  • The EBAC is to become a performance measure for students too. New ‘English Baccalaureate Certificates’ (EBCs) will be created to replace GCSEs in EBAC subjects. The first EBCs (in English, Maths and Science) will come into force in 2015, with the rest of the EBAC subjects to follow.
  • EBCs will be assessed through traditional, final exams at the end of the period of study. Modules and course-work will be eliminated.
  • There will only be one exam board offering each new qualification. Existing exam boards will initially be offered the chance to compete for this role by creating ‘ambitious courses, benchmarked to the world’s best, informed by academic expertise and capable of both recognising exceptional performance and allowing the overwhelming majority of students to have their work recognised and graded fairly’. An independent regulator will name the successful provider.
  • The new EBCs may be used as a model to reform qualifications in all other subject areas.
  • Young people unable to gain an EBAC by age 16 will be offered the chance to keep studying for one until they are 18, or they will be given a written record of achievement which describes their progress in these areas. This will then be shared with prospective employers.

Did he say anything about the arts and cultural subjects?

During questions the Secretary of State mentioned Art & Design and Design & Technology as being subjects that may necessitate ‘practical work which could not be completed in a time-limited exam’. He also said that Music should be ‘better recognised’ in modern schools.

What does this mean for cultural learning?

These announcements - and the language that has been used by the Secretary of State to describe them - send some clear messages about the value that the coalition places on arts and cultural learning.

As followers of the blog will know, the CLA has joined with the CBI, Darren Henley, the Creative Industries Council and many others in calling for a ‘sixth pillar’ in the English Baccalaureate. There are a number of reasons for this, ranging from the intrinsic value of studying and exploring the arts, to the fact that their inclusion would enable every child and young person to gain the creative and cultural skills, knowledge and understanding that our wider workforce needs. If the government fails to include arts subjects within the magic circle of the EBAC then the many of the young people who do not have the resources to access the arts independently from school will be severely disadvantaged in the workplace and beyond.

Anecdotally we know that schools are moving their focus and their resources to EBAC subjects, leaving fewer for other disciplines. This has an effect on the options that children are offered, and on the number of expert teachers who are employed in schools.

In his speech Michael Gove used the word ‘rigorous’ very often, alongside the words ‘core’ and ‘academic’; very clearly distinguishing the EBAC suite of subjects from others and from ‘vocational’ learning. The CLA believes that every subject is equal in rigour and value to others and that all involve a good mix of both practical and theoretical learning opportunities.

What’s next?

It is important to note that this announcement marks the start of a consultation period and that all CLA members now have the opportunity to articulate their thoughts on this subject to government.

We will of course be responding to this issue centrally, but we also urge all our members to take the time to get involved in this debate. The public consultation runs until the 10 December.

What have other people said about this?

The plans for reform appeared first as a leak and were reported in the Daily Mail. You can also read coverage from the BBC, the Guardian, the Independent and the Telegraph (which flags up that the new system would marginalise the arts). Many CLA signatories have also made statements, from the Incorporated Society of Musicians to the Association of School and College Leaders. Russell Hobby of the National Association of Head Teachers said:

There is an obvious gap in the new proposals – the need to encourage breadth of learning and development through participation in sport, culture, arts and volunteering. Unfortunately, at the moment, if something isn't measured, it is marginalised. A solid base in core academic standards is essential, but there is more to growing up and more to achievement than just this.

He added: “A single end-of-course test does not make sense for all subjects. In cases such as art, coursework should be recognised as a measure of realistic performance, and we are pleased this has been recognised in consultation.