U.K. Liberal Democrats Prepare to Resist New Exam Plans

Activists in U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron’s coalition partners, the Liberal Democrats, are preparing to campaign against plans by Education Secretary Michael Gove to change the school exam system for 16-year-olds.

Gove, a member of Cameron’s Conservative Party, and Liberal Democrat Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg said Sept. 17 that beginning in late 2015, the General Certificate of Secondary Education, which relies heavily on non-exam project work, will be replaced by a more academically rigorous test based on the baccalaureate system, a move teachers’ unions say will hurt less academic students.

Because the proposals aren’t in the 2010 coalition agreement that both parties signed up to, they could be torpedoed by Liberal Democrats in the same way that plans to reorganize the National Health Service were in 2011. Then, a vote at the Liberal Democrats’ spring conference forced the government to rethink its policy. On that issue, as on the exams, Clegg had previously agreed to a Tory proposal.

“If he sees this as a compromise, I’m sorry to say it’s not; it’s a capitulation,” Andrew Bridgwater, the chairman of the Liberal Democrat Education Association, said of Clegg in a telephone interview. “The vast majority of members, and certainly those involved in education, feel that an exam-only model doesn’t give the same chances to those with special educational needs, and those who aren’t brilliant academics.”

Conference Speech

Gove addressed the Conservatives’ annual conference in Birmingham, central England, today. Asked afterward about opposition to his exam plans, he told the BBC he would press ahead.

“It’s right we make sure we introduce these exams as quickly as possible, to deal with the problem we’ve inherited with exams that are discredited,” he said. “I’m convinced that the timetable we’ve got will be more than enough time.”

The education secretary said he wants to tackle concerns over so-called grade inflation. The GCSE pass rate rose every year between the introduction of the exam in 1988 and 2011, fueling a debate over whether it had become easier. Successive governments have argued the improvement is the result of better teaching and children working harder.

Teaching for the new qualification, known as the English Baccalaureate Certificate, will begin in English, math and the sciences in September 2015, and other subjects including history, geography and languages will follow.

Single Board

There will be one board setting exams in each subject to end the system of different companies offering rival versions, which Gove said had led to “a race to the bottom” as schools sought out the easiest to improve their performance in league tables. Edexcel Ltd., a unit of Pearson Plc, is the U.K.’s largest exam body. The new exam will be taken by most students, with fewer expected to achieve top grades than at present. More than a fifth of GCSE entries received the top A* or A grades this year.

Liberal Democrat lawmaker Stephen Williams has already expressed concern. “This is a big moment for a government that wants to see social mobility and a workforce that can compete with the best in the world,” he wrote on his blog. “I want to be sure that we’re designing a system that recognizes achievement by every child in a school with a comprehensive intake. We must value not just those with finely tuned minds but also those with highly skilled fingers.”

Bridgwater said he was partly annoyed by the lack of discussion before Gove’s statement. “At the very least, we would have expected pre-announcement consultation, rather than post-announcement consultation,” he said. “The whole thing has been incredibly badly handled.”

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal. LEARN MORE