Understanding the English Baccalaureate Certificate

UPDATE: 7 February 2013

The government has announced that the proposals outlined below will not go ahead.  

Please note, the information in this article is now just for background reference.



The government recently announced proposed changes to the exam system at 16. Read our short guide to find out more.

      In brief: The English Baccalaureate Certificate
  • New exams at 16, set to replace GCSEs
  • Taken in English, Maths, and Science,
    plus one humanities subject and one language
  • All exams sat at the end of the two-year course
  • Coursework kept to a minimum
  • Single exam board for each subject
  • First exams held 2017

The Bacca-what?

The English Baccalaureate Certificate – the new exams at 16, set to replace GCSEs.

That’s a rather wordy name, isn’t it?

They will be called EBCs in everyday speech (just as GCSEs are rarely known as General Certificates of Secondary Education).

So what is a Baccalaureate?

There are a number of existing Baccalaureate qualifications.  In France, students take exams at 18 called the Le baccalauréat (or ‘le bac’) which cover a range of academic subjects.  Some UK schools offer the International Baccalaureate (or IB), again sat at 18, which covers six academic subjects.

Actually, the English Baccalaureate rings a bell, can you think why?

In 2010 the government introduced the English Baccalaureate, not a qualification in itself, but a measure for schools to see how many of their students gain a GCSE grade C across a number of academic subjects (English, Maths, History or Geography, the sciences and a language).  This is sometimes called the EBacc measure.

The idea of studying a set of core subjects has now developed, which together with changes to exams, will create the English Baccalaureate Certificate.

So what exactly will EBCs involve?

16-year-olds will take the English Baccalaureate (EBacc) subjects of English, Maths, Science, one humanities subject (History or Geography) and one language.

How are EBCs different to GCSEs?

EBCs mark a return to the traditional end-of-year exam, with all exams sat at the end of the two-year course.  Unlike GCSEs there will be no exams after each module or opportunities for repeated retakes.

Coursework is being reduced to a minimum and there will be a single exam board for each subject.

The grading system is also being revised, to make the standard for each grade clearer.

When will EBCs start?

In September 2015, students in year 10 will begin studying EBacc courses in English, Maths and Science, taking exams for the first time in 2017.

Examinations in the core humanities and languages subjects will be introduced a few years later, so there will be a cross-over period between GCSEs and EBCs.  During this time, the EBacc measure will be made up of EBacc courses (in English Maths and Science) and GCSEs (in History, Geography and languages).

Why are the exams changing?

Since the introduction of GCSEs in the late 1980s, most years have seen a steady rise in the number of pupils getting good grades, sometimes known as grade inflation. Whilst this may be due to a range of factors, the increases may also reflect a change in standards over time.

EBCs are designed to ensure there is a set standard (so will mark an end to the rises in grades each year) and will also mean that students study a core range of subjects.

And what’s happening to GCSEs?

They are being abolished.

But I’m taking my GCSEs before ECBs are introduced – will they still be valid?

Yes. GCSEs will continue to be recognised by employers and further education colleges and universities.

It’s exactly the same as when GCSEs were introduced in 1987.  The qualifications they replaced –  O-levels and CSEs – are still recognised today.

What about Wales and Northern Ireland?

New plans for Wales and Northern Ireland are set to be announced later this year.

So what happens next?

The government has launched a consultation on the proposed changes, where teachers, education specialists and other individuals and organisations can comment on the new plans.  This may mean that there are some further changes to EPCs, once all the responses have been reviewed and considered.

The consultation, Reforming Key Stage 4 qualifications, runs until 10 December 2012.

The proposed EBCs are not supported by all political parties, so plans may not go ahead if there is a change of government.


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