David Laws: “An exam for all abilities”

Here’s the text of the email from Lib Dem education minister David Laws to party members today setting out the Coalition’s proposed reforms of the GCSE exam system:

The Coalition has today announced our plan to replace GCSEs with new, reformed qualifications.

Our proposals will restore rigour to the exam system, allow us to compete on the international stage, and end years of grade inflation under Labour.

When some Conservatives suggested that we could bring back the 1950s O-Level, Nick Clegg immediately made it clear that Liberal Democrats would not tolerate such a move. Liberal Democrats will never accept a return to an unfair, two-tier system that divides children into winners and losers at a young age.

That’s why Nick negotiated with the Conservatives over the summer to ensure that the exam system will be more rigorous, but will also have Liberal Democrat ideas of fairness and social mobility at its heart. Our new qualification will:

Be designed for the same children who currently sit GCSEs – whatever their ability level;
Stretch those at the top while ending the cap on aspiration that means some children sit exam papers which don’t allow them to achieve more than a grade C;
Reward children for their individual aptitude and ability – unlike the O-Level there will be no cap on top grades;
Include new provision for the very small number of children, including those with special educational needs, who don’t sit GCSEs at the moment.
We have also ensured there will be full consultation with teachers, parents and others in education. That means that the first teaching for these new exams, which we propose calling English Baccalaureate Certificates, will begin in 2015.

By working together in coalition Liberal Democrats have been able to secure a new qualification fit for the future, that will benefit all students and not just the privileged few.

Best wishes,

David Laws MP
Liberal Democrat Minister of State for Education

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  • Colour me unconvinced, sorry David.

  • Sounds okay. But will keep a close eye…

  • Richard Dean 17th Sep '12 - 8:18pm

    This is a masterpiece of nonsense. What are the proposals? How will they work? How will employers use them to filyter applicants? How will students use them to see what they are best at?

  • This will make less academic children losers and they will have nowhere to go. There has been no consultation , this is Gove’s wet dream. Consultation AFTER the event is worthless is it not? A few (not very bright) public school boys have already decided this for themselves and no doubt for the benefit of private pockets.

  • Helen Tedcastle 17th Sep '12 - 8:27pm

    This is a fudge. A cobbled together – back of the envelope deal – to placate Gove .

    Clegg should have stuck to his guns in June and said no to a two-tier system and no to a return to a narrowly configured exam (the EBacc – which consists of only five academic subjects), which favours the most academic.

    Students of mixed abilities? Low academic achievers (above special needs)? Not catered for in an exam which is skewed to the top 5%.

    Gifted musicans, artists etc..? Their aptitudes don’t count because those subjects aren’t in the EBacc.

    An opportunity wasted.

  • Why can we not have properly researched, evidence based policy to find the best system for educating our children?

    This just looks like a cobbled together raft of ideas based on prejudice and nostalgia.

    Where is the actual evidence that a one off 3 hour long exam being the best method for assessing a child’s ability?

  • If as an adult I want to study a language or perhaps catch up on a subject I failed at school such as Maths or English, will I still be able to obtain a stand-alone qualification?

    PS Why do we have to use a French name?

  • By the way, as a self-appointed “radical”, maybe you’d like to comment on Kenneth Baker’s proposal for ending exams at 16. Seems like an old chap like him is prepared to think much more creatively than you and Gove.

  • I was quite annoyed to received the email from David Laws trying to justify the changes. They strike me as a waste of time and money. They will lead to a lot of disruption and uncertainty for teachers and pupils. I agree with some of the above comments. It seems that the privately educated 7% are trying to impose this system on the rest of us, with no real consultation, because they think it is best for us. No thanks!

  • Well it didnt take long did it.

    I said in a previous post that the only reason Laws was returned to Government was to shore up Conservative policies with the aim of using Laws to sell it to the Liberal Democrat grass roots.

    Appointing Laws into education was obviously going too see him standing side by side with Goves, trumpeting it as a good thing and what a success Liberal Democrats are making in Government.

    Laws says “That’s why Nick negotiated with the Conservatives over the summer to ensure that the exam system will be more rigorous, but will also have Liberal Democrat ideas of fairness and social mobility at its heart”

    What a load of old Guff. Over the summer, Cameron,Clegg and the cast of the muppets where all either out of the country on holidays, or being booed at the Olympics whilst presenting medals.

    Laws claim there was negotiation by Nick Clegg, but who made clegg the puppet master of the Libdems? I would have thought that for Clegg to be able to negotiate Liberal Democrats terms, he first would have needed to consult with his party on the policy proposals and sort the parties agreement, Nick Clegg is surly just a leader of a party and a Deputy Prime Minister, not the head of a dictatorship.

    If this is the signs of things to come for the 2nd half of this government, I suggest the party is in more trouble than they realise

  • “and end years of grade inflation under Labour”

    What an insult to the kids who have taken these over the last 15 years or so. How about some evidence please David ?

    “We have also ensured there will be full consultation with teachers, parents and others in education.”

    No, if that was the case you would have launched a consultation, reported back in a year or so with the options and then produced the new exam system. Consultation around what sounds like a fait accompli is not true consultation.

    First major issue, first time talking like a Tory. Come back Sarah, you should never have been replaced….

  • Helen Tedcastle 17th Sep '12 - 10:31pm

    @ Steve Way: ” No, if that was the case you would have launched a consultation, reported back in a year or so with the options and then produced the new exam system. Consultation around what sounds like a fait accompli is not true consultation.

    First major issue, first time talking like a Tory. Come back Sarah, you should never have been replaced….”

    You are absolutely right. Sarah is not a Tory. She did a great job at Early Years but she clearly didn’t agree enough with Gove and his clique (Truss et al..).

    What is the future for subjects outside the EBacc? Why have they been effectively downgraded as not ‘rigorous’ enough for children? Surely they can be made more challenging if necessary .

    There is a real danger that a two-tier subject system will develop, with less purely academic children taking non-EBacc subjects. It’s a small step from a system like this to the reintroduction of a CSE – type exam.

    This muddle of an education plan is a pathetic attempt of the Leadership to claim victory from the jaws of defeat – it should have been ‘strangled at birth’ – to quote the great Cyril Smith.

  • Peter Watson 17th Sep '12 - 11:02pm

    “unlike the O-Level there will be no cap on top grades”: This is the opposite of what I have just heard Toby Young state on Newsnight.

  • Peter Watson 17th Sep '12 - 11:06pm

    “there will be full consultation with teachers, parents and others in education. That means that the first teaching for these new exams, which we propose calling English Baccalaureate Certificates, will begin in 2015.”
    Huh? What is the purpose of consultation if the outcome is already decided?

  • Peter Watson 17th Sep '12 - 11:13pm

    “Rigour” and “rigorous”. What does Laws (and Gove et al) mean?
    My dictionary suggests, “severity; unswerving enforcement of law, rule, or principle; strict exactitude; austerity; extreme strictness”. Does that really describe the education system that Lib Dems want?

  • Peter Watson 17th Sep '12 - 11:18pm

    “Stretch those at the top while ending the cap on aspiration that means some children sit exam papers which don’t allow them to achieve more than a grade C;
    Include new provision for the very small number of children, including those with special educational needs, who don’t sit GCSEs at the moment.”

    All this from a single 3 hour exam paper? Wow? And will those children with special educational needs who are given extra time to complete an exam have to sit a 4 hour exam?

  • The idea of phasing out coursework and a modular approach should be anathema to Lib Dems. If by “rigour” is just meant “inflexibility”, the country will just waste potential talent. How on earth can our leadership accept this sort of nonsense for an education policy? And that’s just looking at the headlines of this!

  • Peter Watson 18th Sep '12 - 12:01am

    There are so many contradictions at the heart of this policy.

    How can we reduce teaching to the test by making all assessment dependent upon a single test?
    How do we encourage study broader or deeper than the restrictions of a curriculum when the focus is on a single terminal exam?
    How do we encourage creatvity and imagination, teamwork and research skills, with a single exam?
    How do we account for different styles of learning and different educational needs with a single exam?
    How can a qualification fit for the future be based upon forcing children to write for three hours?
    How can presenting this as a fait accompli be reconciled with consultation? Or being liberal? Or democratic?
    If continuous assessment and modularity is wrong then why allow university courses to use these approaches?
    What is the evidence to support the claim that the old system is broken? And that the changes will fix it?

    I confess that I have always had a prejudicial, stereotypical view of the Lib Dems as a party full of teachers and educationalists (despite, ironically, not being one myself), and consequently I assumed that the party would be the best and most dependable on educational matters. I feel let down and disappointed.

  • Peter Watson 18th Sep '12 - 1:01am

    In 2015, my son (and all those who have taken GCSE’s over the last few years) will be old enough to cast his first vote.
    Will these young adults really want to vote for a party that is so vociferously belittling their achievements, insulting their intelligence, accusing them of coasting through a dumbed-down system and acquiring worthless qualifications? I wouldn’t.

  • David,

    Sorry don’t understand what the policy is? Can you explain it please

    Oh, and by the way, you should be keeping a low profile seeing that you should be nowhere near a Government position since you were found guilty of a grave breach of the standards’ rules in this Parliament.

  • What is there to stop English schools continuing to use GCSE’s set by the Welsh exam board, WJEC?

  • Peter Watson – yes, the Lib Dems have been very havily filled with teachers and education people. And now we put someone with a City background in, who clearly has “less than sympathetic” views of education. In addition to which – not saying all teachers are angels – they tend to have rather moral views, being partly responsible for passing on values to the younger generation. What sort of message does David’s appointment send to them?

  • grace boddy 18th Sep '12 - 9:20am

    To use only an exam to assess learning of a subject requires a good short term memory but does not test a good understanding . Any child can be unwell or have other difficulties on the exam day causing them to perform at a lower standard than usual.

  • Ed Shepherd 18th Sep '12 - 9:22am

    I hear a lot about this grade inflation. What is the evidence for it? Did it just start in 1997 and not exist before then? Over the the same period, athletes have produced faster times in their events. Is that due to “running and swimming times” inflation? Could it be that children have worked harder and received better teaching that has led to better grades? Has the availability of improved technology led to better grades? I hear a lot of nostalgia about the old days from some politicians but I wonder how many of those politicians can use technology as well as the average 11-year-old? Could it be that the loss of miserable old Gradgrinian teachers from the system has improved teaching and learning? I work with a lot of young people and I tend to find that they have very good team-work and social skills. They often seem to view their former teachers and schools in a positive light whereas many people of my age saw our education as a demeaning experience. I know that I would rather work with happy, co-operative young people than miserable, middle-aged politicians any day of the week even if the politicians can conjugate their Latin verbs. Pity that the expensive education of some politicians did not teach them that it is immoral to be dishonest about their expenses.

  • Tom Snowdon 18th Sep '12 - 9:41am

    As several have already said, where is the evidence that change is required ? Where were the proposals for what the change should be ? And why were they not put to the party.
    Shouldn’t we at least try to make our policies evidence based and data driven, rather than just going along with right wing sound bites ? This is a slap in the face for all those who have taken GCSEs.
    This was almost inevitable with the return of Laws, but as it was not in the coalition agreement, or our manifesto, it should have been put to the party. Just a passing thought, perhaps it could have been discussed at conference, but that’s far too democratic for Clegg and co. Another nail in the coffin of our party.

  • Ed Shepherd

    A good point

    I did O Levels in 85 and remeber then that I was in a pretty small minority – the rest focused on CSE and from what I can remember didn’t have much fun in the classroom. It was also a far more disciplinarian age where corporal punishment was frequent and the school buildings and facilities were left over from the pre-war years. Still had a good time though!

    The kids now seem to be far more focused on careers and the expansion of higher education makes education a necessity for more than just and elite few. Schools are also more focused on producing good results and so the two together would mean that attainment is higher in an exam which is not norm based. They may not be cleverer but perhaps a bit smarter than my generation.

    Whether all the changes, league tables, HE expansion etc are a good idea is another argument

    It seems that the noises coming from Gove, Laws and their ilk come from ignorance of what education was like for most people in the 80s and that the engagement and attainment of kids should be applauded not undermined. I am not against reform of exams per se but it has to be done in a coherent way and the fact it is backed by snide comments undermines the argument. Don’t even get me started on ‘Free Schools’ either

  • Dan Falchikov


  • Bill le Breton 18th Sep '12 - 10:17am

    If it is so good, then, give Conference a proper vote on it, with an amendment that addresses the concerns raised above.

  • Keith Browning 18th Sep '12 - 10:47am

    Memory tests are great – I used to love history at school but was crap with the dates. I had a great history teacher, who was so good he published a book of ‘model’ O level answers to the most common ly set questions.

    During my 20 minute train journey to school on the day of the exam I revised one topic I had almost totally forgotten. Half an hour later – guess what was Question one on the exam paper? I was almost word perfect..!!

    Long live the 3 hour memory test… ha ha ha. ????

    However, I’m not sure what it has to do with education…!!!

  • Grade inflation, if quoted by a Government Minister, should be backed up by evidence. Having attended a truly awful school in a Council Estate in the early 80’s and then seen the standard of my son’s schools, and his schooling, drastically improve during his school years 1996 – 2010 I would look more at the changing educational environment rather than a simplistic Tory myth.

    I left school with 3 poor O Levels and a hatful of CSE’s. Luckily for me I had excellent bosses during my time in the forces who identified that I had the ability and encouraged me to study an obtain a series of O / A Levels. When I was medically discharged I attended University and achieved a First. My natural ability has not changed but the school system at the time did not nurture it.

    Our teachers are better trained then ever before, they have better facilities (although no doubt Gove will focus these on his pet schools soon enough) and kids are no longer made to believe they have a ceiling based upon where they grow up. In one sentence, Laws perpetuates the myth that the success is only due to “grade inflation” and alienates those hard working Teachers and Students. He really does talk and act like a typical Tory.

  • There’s little to no evidence of widespread grade inflation. Of course, from time to time, some exams or courses turn out to have been pitched at the wrong level (including too hard), and that’s why we have Ofqual, but evidence is thin on the ground.

    A very serious issue is that it has long been a national sport to moan about how young people have it easier these days in a whole range of fields and for the reactionaries to claim that there has been a long slide downwards in educational standards from some imaginary point in the past – usually, coincidentally, when they went to school. In fact, it’s an entertaining hobby for someone with half a day on their hands to trawl archives looking for people moaning about standards. As Gove is keen to go back to the 50s, here are some examples of what the examiners of the time felt about their exams

    “It was distressing to find that most candidates could not set out a formal letter. Few would have been granted an interview on the evidence of their letters, which were often curt and even rude, while the excuses offered for the postponement of the interview were generally unreal.”

    JMB examiners, 1958

    “The root cause of a serious decline in competence – out of well over 900 scripts all but a small number showed that the candidate could not understand the plain sense of English words singly and in combination . . Weak, loose vocabulary, appalling punctuation.”
    JMB examiners, 1960

    In the face of widespread indiscriminate, incessant and politically opportunist bleating about how awful education is, the Lib Dem really ought to be going on and saying ‘Actually, education is a bit too important to be messed around just because one pushy Minister says so. where’s your evidence?’, but unfortunately that doesn’t seem to have occurred to your Ministers.

    Whilst I think it’s always welcome that Gove is willing to countenance the idea that Thatcher got something wrong (and, can I suggest that a Lib Dem puts him on the spot on that point in the Commons next chance he gets – it would greatly add to the gaiety of the nation), this is very much an example of the thinking that ‘Something Must Be Done. This Is Something. Therefore It Must Be Done’, without recourse to such tedious things as evidence, and smacks very much of Michael Gove putting his ego before the best interests of the country as a whole. I would have expected David Laws to be a bit smarter than to meekly go along with it.

  • Nick (not Clegg) 18th Sep '12 - 11:54am

    I believe it’s to be called an Ebacc. What is that; something from “Star Wars”, a cross between Chewbacca and an Ewok?

  • LondonLiberal 18th Sep '12 - 12:29pm

    Severely reducing coursework will actually hurt worse off students more than richer ones, as students in worse schools tend not to be trained to exam conditions as much.

    If you’re at a poor school and have the confidence of half your grade got by the coursework you’ve done over the year, you’re going to sit your exam with mroe confidence and on a more equal footing than kids in good schools with more resources and a more disciplined atmosphere who get trained to sit an exam .

    Here’s a paraphrase from a book that perhaps should be on the EBacc syllabus:

    “The creatures outside looked from Tory to Liberal, and Liberal to Tory, and from Tory to Liberal again, but already it was impossible to say which was which.”

  • @LondonLiberal
    What you seem to be saying is that students need course work because of the failure of teachers?

    If so, wouldn’t it just be easier to get rid of the failing teachers and put in some good ones?

  • LondonLiberal 18th Sep '12 - 1:29pm


    you’d think, wouldn’t you? of course, that would eb ideal, but we don’t live in an ideal world. the reality – rather than the rose-tinted alternative universe of gove and clegg – is that there are plenty of schools and/or teachers that do not operate in conditions that are conducive to sitting down ona hot day in june and doing everything then. Even when poor teaching or schooling is identified, it can take many years before things get turneda round. And until we reach that state of utopian perfection, the proposals will operate to discriminate in the way that i have outlined.

    This is of course only one reason for coursework. Another is that it makes students learn all year round. I was lucky enough to go to a good school where that happened anyway. But I know someone who knows that she would not have been able to pass her GSCEs if it wasn’t for coursework, as that aided discipline and attendance throughout the year, meaning that her classes weren’t as unruly as they would otherwise have been.

  • jenny barnes 18th Sep '12 - 1:38pm

    I wondered if we’d be allowed to vote on anything that mattered at conference. Thought not.
    This is just commodification of education.

  • If I were a parent or teacher in England, I’d be genuinely worried. Not necessarily because of the plan itself – though that’s still concerning – but at the breakneck speed that this is being brought in. A year ago, nobody was really thinking that this might happen. Now England is to have a new exam structure (and presumably new subject curricula) by 2015. Exactly how are teachers and pupils supposed to manage this?

    Compare it with Scotland, where we’re in the final stages of implementing Curriculum for Excellence. It’s fair to say that this new curriculum is not without many flaws, but the original ideas for it were started around 10 years ago. It was designed that way to allow change to follow pupils through their schooling – the year group currently in S3, aged 14 – with the first set of new exams being introduced next year. It’s been allowed to develop and grow with the general support of all four Scottish political parties, all the main Scottish teaching unions, the Universities, and local authorities. So where there are problems – for example in getting material together and courses produced in time for next year – there is the will to make it happen.

    I’m not saying that CfE is perfect – far from it. But the planning and approach taken is head and shoulders above the knee-jerk, smoke-filled-rooms response of this Government. Surely it would be better for pupils if the government were instead to try to seek consensus and depoliticise education?

  • Peter Watson 18th Sep '12 - 2:59pm

    @Keith Legg
    As a parent I am very worried.
    My oldest child has just achieved excellent results in his GCSEs.
    My second child will sit his GCSEs in 2015 under an exam-only regime that Gove has introduced on a whim and on the back of meaningless use of the word ‘rigour’. I doubt that he will be able to take anything like the breadth or number of subjects as his older brother despite being taught the same curriculum with the same teaching and no less ability.
    My third child will sit her GCSEs in 2020, right in the middle of Gove’s latest experiment.
    And the Lib Dems in government continue to support this rushed, ideological, rigour-free messing around with the education system, tinkering with the 14-16 bits in isolation, and with no evidence to support so-called improvements. I did not vote Lib Dem for this. I will not vote Lib Dem because of this.

  • Tony Dawson 18th Sep '12 - 3:04pm

    Gove decided that his Acadamies/free schools mess wasn’t quite the debacle to match the NHS ‘Disorganisation’. So he’s decided to pitch in this as his attempt to out-do Mr Lansley. 🙁

    Not in the Coalition agreement, but who cares?

  • Leviticus18_23 18th Sep '12 - 4:30pm

    So, is this like Contol Orders…? Considered to be awful – so you just changed the name.

  • George Howard 20th Sep '12 - 1:10am

    Not impressed that a failed MP is given another opportunity. Smacks of Mandelson. No surprise there then that public hold MP’s in such contempt. He brought the reputation of the party into disrepute and as such should not have been rewarded. I guess it’s jobs for the boys.

  • “Not impressed that a failed MP is given another opportunity.”

    Just think of it as a resit.

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