'The devil is in the detail' – heads react to EBC


Heads have reacted cautiously to Michael Gove's plans for an English Baccalaureate Certificate (EBC) to replace GCSEs as England's key qualification for 16-year-olds.

Heads have reacted cautiously to Michael Gove’s plans for an English Baccalaureate Certificate (EBC) to replace GCSEs as England’s key qualification for 16-year-olds.

Under the proposals, pupils of all abilities will take the new qualifications, which the education secretary has said will be more rigorous and demanding. After months of speculation, Mr Gove delivered a statement to Parliament late on Monday (September 17) detailing the changes. 

EBCs in the core subjects will be rolled out in 2015 with first exams in 2017. Courses in other EBacc subjects – history, geography and languages – will follow.

The new EBCs will feature one end-of-course exam, although Mr Gove said that “where individual practical work needs to be assessed we will be flexible”.

The proposals will also see one exam board delivering each subject, a move designed to stop competition between awarding bodies. Mr Gove has invited exam boards to offer “wholly new qualifications”.

Mr Gove will also ask exams regulator Ofqual to consider how the EBCs can be used “as a template for judging and accrediting a new suite of qualifications beyond these subjects to replace current GCSEs”.

He told Parliament that GCSEs had been designed “for a different age and a different world” and that we needed to emulate the most successful academic nations. He said EBCs would be “competitive with the best in the world”.

Heads this week said they need to see more details before judging the full implications but welcomed the commitment to consultation.

Ian Bauckham, head of Bennett Memorial Diocesan School in Kent, said that on the surface the plans appeared “aspirational and visionary”. However, he warned: “The devil is in the detail and it is essential that Mr Gove’s aspirations are translated into an examination which does promote deep learning, high aspiration and real success for all students.”

One concern is the return to terminal exams, which school leaders say will disadvantage many students. Joan McVittie, head of Woodside High School in London, said: “As somebody who sat O levels I would hate to see a return to the one with the best memory getting the top grade. So we must ensure that the new exams test knowledge skills and application.”

Jacques Szemalikowski, head of Hampstead School, also in London, agreed: “Different children learn in different ways and require assessment regimes that reflect this. By assessing and valuing only one type, Mr Gove is limiting aspiration to a very narrow band.”

Mr Bauckham added: “While we are looking to some of the fast-growing Far Eastern economies for lessons on education, they are grappling with excessively high stakes examinations which are bad for child mental health and which can stifle creativity, essential for innovation and economic growth.”

The move is a huge change for England’s exam boards and Mr Gove said that Ofqual will assess applications for each subject. He said: “The winner will be the board which offers the course which best meets the criteria, 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.”

Andrew Chubb, principal of Archbishop Sentamu Academy in Hull, called for the new exams to be “criterion-referenced”. He also warned: “Academic exams alone will not give us what we need – or at least what employers and universities say we need.”

Mike Griffiths, head of Northampton School for Boys, said: “I welcome the debate on what should be in a curriculum suited to the 21st century that will make our system and students ‘world class’, and the government’s proposal to keep a single system, and not to fragment into two or more levels – although I am interested to see how papers can be set appropriate to the whole ability range.” 

Chris Dunne, head of Langdon Park School, in London, pointed out that the plans didn’t match up to Mr Gove’s ambition to emulate the world’s best education systems. He said: “Finland not only tests students far less often than the UK, but along with teacher assessment it places a very strong emphasis on modular assessment after each semester rather than end-of-course examination – the very opposite of what Mr Gove says he intends to establish.”

Glenys Stacey, chief regulator at Ofqual, said they would “advise government on the timetable for change and say if it is not achievable or if the risks to standards or delivery are unacceptable”. She added: “We will wish to identify the delivery pressure points in the reform of GCSEs and intervene if we need to in order to manage any unacceptable risks.”

Mr Gove said that his plans would mean a reform of league tables and that they would “consult widely” on what could replace them.

The changes are currently for England only. Wales and Northern Ireland have yet to decide whether to follow suit. Welsh education minister Andrew Davidson has said this week that a split away from England is likely (click here to read this story).

The EBC reforms

  • GCSEs to be replaced with the English Baccalaureate Certificate (EBC). 
  • The EBC will feature a single end-of-course exam lasting up to three hours.
  • Candidates will be awarded marks for good spelling, grammar and punctuation.
  • Following consultation, first teaching of the new EBCs in English, maths and science will be in 2015 with the first exams to be taken in 2017. 
  • EBCs in the other EBacc subjects will follow – history, geography and languages.
  • Students failing to get the EBacc at 16 will have a “detailed record of achievement in each curriculum area” to help them progress subsequently. The EBCs may be taken up to the age of 18, to allow students to catch up.
  • There will be one exam board designing the syllabus for each of the EBC subjects.
  • Eventually, candidates will be deemed to have achieved the EBacc when they have passed six academic subjects.
  • Ofqual will advise on how the EBCs can be used as a template for new qualifications to replace other GCSEs beyond the EBacc subjects.


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