Global Perspectives: The New English Baccalaureate

On a recent trip to England, CIEB Director Betsy Brown Ruzzi talked with Matt Sanders, lead education policy advisor in Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg’s office, to discuss the recent changes to the General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE) that the government launched in mid-September.

Some highlights from the conversation follow:

Currently the United Kingdom has a coalition government, which is important context for understanding the education policy environment they find themselves in.  The coalition is made up of Conservatives and Liberal Democrats.  According to Sanders, the Conservatives support rigorous standards accompanied by more traditional teaching methods, while the Liberal Democrats are focusing in on social mobility, the achievement differences among different groups of students, why certain cohorts underperform, and how they can close the attainment gap.  With both parties forming a coalition in Parliament, they have worked to develop consensus toward a number of education reforms.

The major reform that the government has recently proposed is abolishing the GCSE (General Certificate of Secondary Education), the qualification that students in England work toward in school from ages eleven to sixteen.  Sanders mentioned that for some time now, there has been a debate about grades on GCSEs going up each year for more and more students.  There has been a question about whether this is because of grade inflation or if these improvements really reflect changes in teaching and outcomes.  England has a number of examination boards, or organizations that deliver the syllabi, curriculum frameworks, examinations and scoring of GCSE examinations to the schools.  They compete with each other by subject and schools can choose which examination board they want to use.  Many in government believe that the competing examination boards are pushing grade scales down and giving schools too much help and leading schools and teachers to choose the easiest “Board” in any given subject for their school so that they can meet their performance goals and do well on league tables.  The government, in order to tackle what it believes is grade inflation, the dumbing down of courses and exams, and to compete with the world’s best, has proposed to reform its examination system.

The government’s solution is to replace the GCSEs with what it is calling the English Baccalaureate Certificate (EBAC).  The new system was announced in September by Education Secretary Michael Gove.  Here are some highlights:

Beginning in the 2015 school year, students will begin new programs of study and then take examinations in 2017 in English, math and science.  These include exams in 7 subtopics: English Language, English Literature, pure math or applied math, biology, chemistry and physics.  Beginning in 2016 new courses will be offered in history, geography and foreign languages with the first exams given in 2018.  To get an EBAC qualification, students will have to succeed in the six core subjects: English, math, two sciences, a foreign language, history or geography.

All students in England will take the new exams, although some students who are struggling may be able to delay taking them until they are 17 or 18 years old and will receive a Certificate of Achievement if they do not meet EBAC standards.  The current A* to G grading system will also be revised and there will no longer be two tiers of exam papers, only one that measures the full ability range.  Coursework, or commonly assessed tasks under controlled conditions, will be phased out in most subjects.  After competing through an open competition, each subject will be provided by one examination board for an initial five- year period.

The new EBAC qualification will be different from the current GCSE in a number of other ways as well.  These include moving away from modular courses, where some courses currently are broken down into smaller units of study that students can take over again if they do not do well, into exams taken only at the end of two years of study.  Tests will be much longer at approximately three hours per exam rather than the current ninety-minute GCSE tests.  There will be a strong focus on grading for spelling, grammar and punctuation.  There will be more emphasis on algebra in math exams and more full-length essays in English.  Six hundred thousand students will be impacted by this new system.

Critics of the government’s EBAC proposal worry that the new system will be a return to the two-tiered system represented by the old O- and A-levels, providing little chance for students that need more help to get it.  They also argue that the move “back to basics” does not reflect the needs of a 21st century economy.  A case in point is that the required EBAC subjects leave out the arts.  Critics say that this will erode England’s creative economy.

Since announcing the new EBAC proposal in September, the government has released a consultation paper laying out, in detail, the proposed changes and is asking for comments from the public.  The consultation paper is available through December 10, 2012 after which some changes may be made to the original proposal.  Not all political parties in England support the move away from GCSEs to EBACs including the Labour Party.  Ultimately, if there is a change in government in England, EBAC plans may not go ahead, but the examination boards are already gearing up for the competitive process to determine who wins each subject.

Though the GCSE’s are used only in the UK, there is an international version of the GCSE’s called the International General Certificate of Education (IGCSE) that is used by high schools all over the world, including, recently, the United States.  Some countries used customized versions of the IGCSE as their national examination system.  Although the changes just described to the GCSE need not change the IGCSE, they may lead to such changes and some countries may choose to make changes in their own system based on the changes in the GCSEs.

So Top of the Class will keep on eye on the progress of the EBAC, its impact on schools in England and continue to report on changes to the EBAC curriculum and assessments that may have implications for other countries.