Education Quality, Graduation Rates, International, K-12, Opinion, Regulatory, Required, Teachers - Written by on Wednesday, December 19, 2012 7:30 - 1 Comment

Teacher’s Voice: Changes Afoot In UK Primary & Secondary Education Landscape

Spring on Bloor - DSCN3135 ep Eric Parker via Compfight

By Rob James, Guest Columnist

The UK education system has underdone a range of important changes over the past years under the Conservative Government. As well as fees rising for university courses, Education Secretary Michael Gove has pushed through changes to secondary, or high school exams as part of an overhaul of testing.

While a GCSE (General Certificate in Secondary Education) at 14-16, and A Level (Advanced Level) curriculum at 16-18 has been offered for many years, a new system will see revised A Levels and an English Baccalaureate scheme be introduced over the next few years in a bid to make testing more rigorous. However, will this new system actually help in making children more inquisitive, and how does it compare to international trends?

One of the main criticisms against the UK education system over the past few years is that inquisitiveness has been marginalized in favor of easier testing and lots of coursework assignments. In this context, students can achieve high results by rote, rather than displaying critical thinking skills; arguments persist that this approach makes it harder to transition to more challenging University courses, and makes students less employable. This criticism has come as part of a broader set of changes in the UK in terms of cuts to state (public) schools, and the encouragement of more fee paying independent schools to increase competition for academic achievements.

Gove’s new system will involve the wider use of an English Baccalaureate, which was introduced in 2010. The EBacc focuses on key subjects like English, Math, and Science, as well as subjects such as History, Geography , and a foreign language. Under the EBacc, these subjects will be made more academic, with longer exams and critical thinking questions. The EBacc particularly focuses on raising academic competencies through key subjects, compared to the old GCSE system where students could choose from a wider range of subjects.

At the same time, A Levels, which provide more advanced subjects, will be adapted for longer summer exams, compared to the current system of modular work. Gove is also spearheading changes to optional subjects like Information and Computer Technology (ICT), with more of an emphasis placed on computer science and programming, rather than a general education. ICT is not currently part of the first wave of EBacc subjects, however.

There are doubts over whether the EBacc and more intensive exams will encourage inquisitive and academically minded students, or risk alienating and downgrading the chances of those without these skills. Questions are also being asked of the place of arts, sports, and vocational subjects, and whether the exam system of the EBacc will, as Bill Boyle suggests, ultimately switch its ‘philosophy to grading rather than learning.’ While efforts to bring subjects like ICT up to date with the job market, and a rhetoric of tougher assessment to reward academic skills are being made, the danger becomes that an exam based system will cause less academically gifted students to suffer. The end result could be a further dividing of opportunities within the UK for students able to pay for academic and exam tutoring to get through a more rigorous system.

How, then, does the UK shakeup compare to trends in Europe and the United States? In terms of the latter, the EBacc’s focus on rigorous testing in core subjects is similar to the SATs, albeit with less focus on multiple choice testing. Criticisms of the EBacc’s potential to divide students able to devote the time and extra tutoring resources to exams have also been made of the SAT’s high pressure testing. While standardized testing ostensibly provides a level assessment field for college, at least in terms of critical thinking and core skills, it also tends to reward affluent students. Charles Murray goes so far as to argue that the specialized coaching and weighing towards questions and contexts that are not familiar to low-income students, is ‘mainly a test of upper-middle-class socialization.’ Inquisitiveness or natural enthusiasm for learning is offset, then, by results.

It’s also important to understand the EBacc itself as an extension of European-style teaching models for the International Baccalaureate - an exam system typically administered within fees paying colleges and private schools attracting a cross-section of international students. The IB is more academically focused, and more driven by international competitive standards and transferable skills - it’s also a familiar part of a European education system where the UK currently sits below 18 other countries in terms of key reading and writing skills. However, the IB is also broader in terms of subjects, and does not rely as heavily on exams, instead being more flexible in terms of teacher-devised curriculum.

Indeed, Gove and the Conservative’s main influence on the EBacc appears to be Singapore’s education system. The South East Asian country’s system offers subject banding in secondary schools, with students taking advanced, normal, and technical classes at different streams. More advanced students take tougher, academic exams, while others take more vocational exams. While Gove suggests that lower ability students would receive more options to take less demanding exams or progress to higher levels, criticisms note that academic streaming is just another form of social streaming designed to make it harder for low income children to progress.

What education reforms in the UK are pointing to, then, is less a case of creating conditions for more academic and inquisitive students, then restructuring a system to introduce tougher exam divides from an earlier age. Like the SATs, this focus on core skills and academic subjects both creates the potential for a higher band of achievement through rigorous exam taking, but stacks the odds against students either unused, or unable to financially access the tutoring and time demands of these subjects. Moreover, the EBacc’s exam system itself has been criticized for paying lip service to the academic depth of the International Baccalaureate, while actually encouraging more standardized testing with less input from teachers.

Rob James, a secondary school teacher in the UK, who’s currently planning Easter revision courses for his GCSEs students. Rob likes to blog about the different aspects of inspiring young minds, particularly through use of new media technologies. 


Boyle, Bill. ‘The Ebacc is a sad result of political rhetoric and empty intervention.’ The Guardian. 24 Sep 2012.

Department for Education. ‘The English Baccalaureate.’ 12 Oct 2012.

Hunting English. ‘“Gove Levels” - EBacc Taking Us Backwards!” HuntingEnglish. 17 Sep 2012.

Marriage, Rebecca. ‘English Baccalaureate versus International Baccalaureate.’ Re:Locate. 2012.

Mellke, James. ‘EBacc ‘could marginalise’ pupils with learning difficulties such as dyslexia.’ The Guardian. 18 Sep 2012.

Murray, Charles. ‘Abolish the SAT.’ The American. July/August 2007.

Paton, Graeme. ‘Sport and art undermined by new EBacc exams.’ The Telegraph. 18 Sep 2012.


1 Comment

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David Knowles
Jan 27, 2013 18:05

Hard to find the enthusiasm to read an article about UK education when the picture is of schoolchildren in another country!

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