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GCSEs: What the DfE said in response to Lords’ reform calls

Ministers have rejected calls by a House of Lords committee to reform GCSEs and secondary education, but they have revealed some new details of their thinking on the issue.

The Lords committee on education for 11-16 year olds wanted a raft of changes, including scrapping the English baccalaureate (EBacc).

In its response today, government rejected most of its recommendations, saying it has “no plans for wholesale reform” of GCSEs.

But it has set out some more details. Here’s what you need to know…

1. ‘Short course’ on reading for teachers

The committee had urged ministers to work out why about a third of pupils do not achieve a grade 4 or above in GCSE English and maths each year and to publish its findings. 

DfE disagreed that further work was needed to investigate the issue and they’ve already “taken action” to raise standards. 

But they said they are developing a “short course on reading for all secondary teachers”, likely to be released in September 2024.

This would support teachers with the implementation of the reading framework, published last year, but there is little further information. 

2. DfE ‘analysing’ language teacher supply

Government did accept the committee’s recommendation to explore “innovative ways” to encourage schools to promote language learning and to address barriers like the “limited supply of suitably qualified teachers”. 

The DfE said it was “analysing” the supply of languages teachers in England “to better understand how and where we can support the sector in recruiting excellent language teachers”. 

For 2023-24, just 33 per cent of the required modern foreign languages teachers were recruited, government data shows. 

3. ‘Barriers’ to digital skills

The committee urged government to explore introducing a “basic digitial literacy qualification” at key stage 4.

This would “ensure that all pupils have an opportunity to develop the basic digital skills needed to participate effectively in post-16 education and training, employment and wider life”.

Ministers did not accept the recommendation, adding they are “not convinced that a digital literacy qualification would address any potential issues around the teaching of digital skills, particularly at KS4, as there would be limited incentive for schools to offer such a qualification”. 

But there are “barriers to teaching digital skills” through the computing curriculum at GCSE, including available teaching time.

They reveal they are working with the computing education sector to “better understand what digital skills are taught through the computing curriculum at KS3”. 

“Based on the barriers identified so far, our initial assessment is that such a qualification might be better suited outside of KS4. We will continue to work with schools and other experts on this important matter.” 

No further details were provided.

4. Can’t commit to ‘long term’ move to onscreen tests

The committee wanted ministers to lead on the transition to on-screen assessments at GCSE. Several exam boards have already set out timescales for digital exams, but they do require sign off from exams regulator Ofqual.

However, government said it was still researching the evidence base for on-screen tests for pupils with Ofqual so it “currently cannot commit to moving to OSAs in the long term”. 

“We agree that moving high-stakes qualifications onscreen has the potential to bring considerable opportunities and risks, and therefore it is vital that we ensure any transition to OSA is managed effectively and fairly.” 

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