Michael Gove’s education reforms will go some way to improving the current system, but work still has to be done to ensure the needs of the students themselves are met.
The current exam system is certainly not ideal; specifications are so precise students are not given a deserved freedom in their exams, while many students spend vast amounts of time concentrating on their re-sits. The key criticism of the current examination systems, as reported by The Daily Telegraph, is that “The ‘exam-driven’ focus of classes at GCSE and A-level leaves students unprepared for the type of independent study expected at university.”
In Michael Gove’s drastic plans to overhaul the exam system to tackle these weaknesses he aims to replace the current GCSEs with the English Baccalaureate ‘E-Bacc’, and A-Levels with the Advanced Baccalaureate ‘A-Bacc’; both of which will be set by one, government-endorsed exam board. Exams will be taken terminally; removing the modular element of exams, not dissimilar from O-Levels but still allowing students to take one AS exam at the end of Year 12. Exams will be harder; “truly rigorous” as Gove describes, avoiding coursework which is often viewed as lacking credibility and validity.
Terminal exams will motivate students to work harder to avoid re-taking the whole course; it will also prevent sixth formers being continually plagued by the constant pressure of upcoming exams. As such, these exams will better prepare them for the academic requirements of university.
The new exams will aim to scrap the long, leading “sat-nav” questions of current A-Level exams, replacing them with shorter, open-ended questions, thereby encouraging students to draw on their own knowledge of the subject instead of being directed to a certain answer. This will prevent spoon-feeding in classes and force students to fully understand their subjects while allowing those that do so to be fully recognised and separated from those that recite pre-learnt essays.
Alongside this, the marking system will be altered to combat the current criticism that too many students achieve top grades. A* grades will be replaced with ‘Grade 1’ which will be awarded to less than 10% of exam papers, allowing universities to better distinguish between students.
The new exams display striking similarities to existing A Level alternatives; the Cambridge Pre-University exams, for example, pioneered at high-achieving private schools Charterhouse and Winchester, similarly seek to avoid coursework and focus on final exams with broad questions. They too have a different marking system, involving a top D1 grade which is the equivalent to an A** .
However, Gove has included one final aim not covered by Pre-U exams, and this is to ensure students in Sixth form have a well-rounded education. Gove has pursued this in three ways in his A-Bacc; firstly all students will be required to write a 5,000 word essay as an extended project, ensuring that all students have had practise to improve their essay writing skills for university. Secondly, students will be obliged to undertake volunteering work, this is likely to have beneficial effects on the local community as well as for the students- both of these features are core components of the International Baccalaureate which Gove has rightly included in his A-Bacc. Thirdly, he has controversially proposed to require students to choose a ‘contrasting’ fourth subject compared to their other A-Bacc subjects. This aims to address the criticism that students in sixth form are able to become too specialised in their chosen subjects. For example, a student studying Mathematics, further Mathematics and Physics will be expected to take on a humanity subject such as Geography or an Art subject.
This is too severe to be practically implemented and may not always best serve the needs of the student themselves. It seems absurd that a student wishing to study Medicine at university will not be allowed to study relevant subjects to their course such as Biology, Chemistry, Physics and Mathematics and instead be forced to study a subject they have no interest in and which could potentially bring down their grade average, reducing their chance of success in their chosen field.
Gove's E-Bacc is a combination of Gove’s choice of ‘core’ GCSEs which will be compulsory to study, these include: English, Mathematics, Sciences, a Language and either History or Geography. While many schools may choose to require their students to study these subjects, it does not allow them the freedom to choose a range of alternative subjects to cater for students with different academic strengths.
In addition, removing coursework and modular examinations will place a huge amount of pressure on students to perform on the day of their exams. While this is arguably an important test for students in preparing them for university; these exams must still act as a preparation tool and not seek to replicate university. Although former Education Secretary Lord Baker has argued these exams are not gruelling enough, placing additional stress on students not yet able to cope with this could be detrimental to their development.
These reforms will not just affect the students themselves. New textbooks will need to be created, exam boards will be dissolved, redundancies made and teachers will have to be retrained in new syllabuses.
If Gove’s reforms are to be worthy of the wider implications these will have, he must ensure they are beneficial to the students in testing their academic ability and in preparing them for further education.
Serena Crawshay-Williams is an intern at the Centre for Policy Studies and completed her A-Levels at Charterhouse School.