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EBaccs will replace GCSEs from 2015
GCSEs are to be replaced by a new English Baccalaureate Certificate in secondary schools in England, representing the most radical shake-up of examination for 16-year-olds for a generation.
The new-style qualifications, to be known as EBaccs, will do away with the "modules" which allow GCSE students to retake parts of their course, cut back heavily on the use of classroom assessment and coursework and return to the emphasis on a traditional end-of-year exam, to end what Education Secretary Michael Gove called "grade inflation and dumbing down".
After Liberal Democrats resisted proposals for a two-tier system for students of differing academic abilities, Mr Gove said that almost all students in English schools will take EBaccs.
Where schools believe individual pupils will struggle with the test, they will be able to apply to defer them until 17 or 18.
The first EBacc courses in English, maths and sciences will begin in September 2015 and children will sit exams in these subjects in 2017, with the other core humanities and languages subjects following a few years later.
Just one exam board will be selected by regulators Ofqual to offer qualifications in each subject, following a bidding process, in order to prevent what Mr Gove said was a "corrupt... race to the bottom" in which boards sought to attract schools with easier tests which massaged up pass rates.
Announcing his plans in a statement to the House of Commons, Mr Gove said that the GCSE was "conceived and designed for a different age" when the school-leaving age was 16 and only a minority expected to go on to higher education. It was "no longer right for now", he said.
And he told MPs: "We believe it is time to raise aspirations and restore rigour to our examinations... After years of drift, decline and dumbing down, at last we are reforming our examination system to compete with the world's best."
But shadow education secretary Stephen Twigg said that the proposed system "doesn't reflect the needs of society and the modern economy" and urged Mr Gove to shelve his plans and consult with teachers.
"We need to face the challenges of the 21st century," said Mr Twigg. "I simply don't accept that we achieve that by returning to the system abolished as out-of-date in the 1980s... We on this side will not support changes that only work for some children."
Mr Twigg accused the Education Secretary of holding back the introduction of the EBacc until after the general election in the hope of swapping it for a two-tier system like the old O-levels and CSEs if the Conservatives secure a majority Government.
And teaching unions gave the proposals a hostile welcome.
NASUWT general secretary Chris Keates said the proposals were "entirely driven by political ideology rather than a genuine desire on the part of the coalition Government to reform the examination system in the best interests of children and young people".
Young people taking GCSEs over the next two years had been "told publicly that the exams for which they are working on are discredited and worthless", she said, adding: "The lack of concern for the impact and motivation of young people and teachers working towards GCSEs is disgraceful."
Martin Johnson, deputy general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL), said: "A new exam certainly should not be designed on the back of a restaurant menu as a short-term political fix by ignorant ministers.
"This is an insult to the nation's children who will have to live with the consequences if the crackpot ideas are implemented."
And the Edge Foundation charity, chaired by former Conservative education secretary Lord Baker, said the new proposals were "not enough" and neglected practical learning.
Lord Baker said: "It's vital that schools and colleges provide education which develops practical skills and personal qualities as well as subject knowledge. This has to include opportunities to learn by doing."
Mr Gove clashed publicly with Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg earlier this year over leaked proposals for a two-tier system, which the Lib Dem leader warned could lead to young children being "cast on a scrapheap".
But following negotiations over the summer, Mr Clegg on Monday joined Mr Gove in a show of unity as they toured classrooms at Burlington Danes Academy school in west London.
Mr Clegg said: "Michael Gove and I have worked closely on this, we are both committed equally to greater rigour in the exam system, yet being inclusive and supportive within the system... I wholeheartedly support this, I think this is a really good reform."
And Mr Gove said: "What we have got here is the best of a Conservative aspiration, to increase rigour, and a Liberal Democrat aspiration, to increase social mobility."
Rejecting suggestions that he had undermined the value of GCSEs obtained between now and the start of the new system, Mr Gove said: "Absolutely not, I don't think that anyone who secures a good pass in any qualification should be told that it's worthless."
The plans will now go out for a three-month consultation, while the Department for Education will also consult on a replacement for the system of school league tables.
Exam boards are expected to begin preparing bids to Ofqual in the new year for the right to offer the new EBacc courses.
The reforms do not apply to Wales, Scotland or Northern Ireland.