We store cookies on your device to make sure we give you the best experience on this website. I'm fine with this - Turn cookies off
Switch to an accessible version of this website which is easier to read. (requires cookies)

I-levels replace GCSEs: Gove's great reform or another bemusing move?

June 5, 2013 12:12 PM
By Warwick Mansell in The Guardian
Originally published by East Midlands Liberal Democrats

The education secretary wants to reform the entire qualifications framework, but has backed down on a series of proposals

Michael Gove is trying to reform the entire curriculum and qualifications system for pupils up to the age of 18 years. Photograph: Tim Cuff/Alamy

It is a near full-time job keeping up with the constant changes, backtracking and new developments in education. So what parents and pupils make of it is anyone's guess.

The latest idea is for I-levels to replace GCSEs in some courses starting from 2015. This comes a year after the education secretary, Michael Gove, first suggested a radical change to exams at 16, with GCSEs to be replaced by traditional, harder, O-level-style exams and, most controversially, a qualification for supposedly "less intelligent" pupils similar to the old CSE.

Gove - who is attempting to reform the entire curriculum and qualifications framework for five- to 18-year-olds during a single five-year term - sees a GCSE overhaul as central to that, citing England's largely static performance in a major international testing study as evidence of the need for change.

The CSE proposal was dropped last September, seemingly under pressure from the Liberal Democrats, but Gove pressed on with proposals for a new English baccalaureate certificate exam to replace GCSEs.

Alongside it, the current system of several competing exam boards for each subject would be replaced in favour of a "franchising" model in which the boards would compete for a contract to run each subject's exams. Gove also wanted to remove the tiering system by which pupils took either harder or easier papers in most GCSE subjects, saying it "capped ambition" for lower-achievers.

But in February, he retreated on both the name of the new qualification - saying that GCSEs would remain, but be "reformed" - and on the franchising idea, after both the exams regulator Ofqual and the Commons education select committee expressed reservations.

He persisted with aiming to scrap tiering, but this was another idea vetoed, at least for maths and science, in the latest development: a paper reportedly to be put forward by Ofqual, with the regulator suggesting renaming the GCSE "I-level", for "intermediate".

GCSEs might need renaming for two reasons: first, to act as a signal to the outside world that these new exams will be different - harder - than current GCSEs. And second, to distinguish them from the Welsh and Northern Irish versions of the GCSE, whose ministers are not keen to follow England's reform plans.

Gove believes England's exams must be toughened up to make them more stretching, spurring pupils to compete with countries such as Singapore and Japan, which do better on international tests.

The situation is complicated, however, by the way policy-making works. Although Gove is supposed to set the overall direction of travel for exam developments, Ofqual looks at the detail. It has been acting increasingly independently in the past six months.

Gove, who criticised GCSEs last year during a furore over the marking of English exams in the subject, has been attacked for undermining confidence in the system for pupils going through it. It seems fair to assume many will be bemused to learn, during exams season, of yet another possible change.

With legal changes meaning all pupils must be in some form of education or training to the age of 18 to be introduced by 2015, some - including the CBI leader John Cridland - are questioning why we continue to need conventional exams at 16 at all.

Last month, Gove told the select committee that his policy-making style was to put out a suggestion, listen to arguments against it and then accept the "strong parts" of that criticism. He would present the many changes of course, then, as evidence of his having listened. But, for those potentially on the end of these reforms, it must present a very confusing picture.

Warwick Mansell is author of Education by Numbers: the Tyranny of Testing