GCSE reform

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GCSEs are changing! New specifications are being developed by the Awarding Organisations for first teaching from September 2016. Draft specifications are now available from the AOs. Read this article from GA Magazine for a summary of the draft specifications.

To find out about the new specifications and start to explore some of their key changes and challenges, join the GA and the four major awarding organisations for CPD events in London, Birmingham and Manchester in June. These conferences will enable teachers to make an informed choice about the new GCSE geography specifications and take away practical teaching advice and examples of good practice.

What's changing?

Ofqual Consultation – January 2014

Ofqual have completed a consultation on the conditions and regulations for GCSE geography. Find their proposals here and the GA’s response here.


On 7 February 2013 the Secretary of State for Education announced a reform of GCSEs, a move which replaces earlier plans to introduce new qualifications called English Baccalaureate Certificates. The Department for Education (DfE) subsequently published the final version of the new content criteria for geography GCSE on 9 April 2014, for first teaching in September 2016. The revised qualification includes a number of significant changes, including a rebalance between physical and human geography content, a requirement that all students study the geography of the UK in depth and use a wide range of investigative skills and approaches, including mathematics and statistics. There is a requirement for at least two examples of fieldwork to be undertaken outside school. Ofqual proposed new assessment objectives for the new Geography GCSE in the same month.

The then Secretary of State argued that reformed GCSEs will remain universal qualifications accessible to the same proportion of pupils that currently sits exams at the end of key stage 4. He noted that the level of what is widely considered to be a pass will be made more demanding, and that at the top end these qualifications should provide preparation for A level, through a balance of more challenging subject content and more rigorous assessment structures, which include fewer modules and a focus on final exams.

Key features of the new GCSE

  • a numerical grading system replaces letter grades
  • untiered exam papers and increased expectation for extended writing in examinations
  • more detailed core content criteria for all GCSEs in geography: some teachers may teach aspects they haven’t previously covered at this level, such as extreme weather conditions and natural weather hazards, global ecosystems or urban trends in different parts of the world
  • the geography of the UK, both in overview and through some depth study. For teachers, this means more than just providing ‘case studies’ from within the UK, but developing knowledge of its landscapes, environmental challenges, changing economy and society etc
  • strengthened content requirements for fieldwork: students must be offered “different approaches to fieldwork undertaken in at least two contrasting environments” and schools must confirm that they have offered all students these opportunities
  • an end to controlled assessment in favour of terminal exams, meaning geography teachers will need to develop new approaches to fieldwork post Controlled Assessment.


Download the final GCSE content criteria

Download the final GCSE assessment objectives

When are the changes taking place?

The reformed GCSE geography is now for first teaching in England from September 2016, behind several other subjects. The GA expects awarding organisations to receive approval for their specifications from Ofqual during 2015, and to make these available to teachers for autumn 2015.

What is the GA's position?

Our approach is always to engage constructively with policy makers to ensure our members’ views are heard. The GA played a key role in shaping the final content criteria, through our membership of the DfE expert group which advised the Secretary of State, through consultation responses the GA and its membership submitted regarding draft versions and through the direct representations we made to government ministers, Ofqual and others.

The GA supports the desire to raise standards but has, over a period of time, made a number of significant criticisms of the reform process and the final outcomes of reform. We argued, for example, that a change in qualification alone is unlikely to raise standards and that significant attention should be paid to supporting schools and teachers through training and guidance to ensure effective qualification reform. To date, no additional central government resources have been forthcoming to support this.

The GA also believes all students should be challenged and rewarded with a clear, precise and widely-understood measure of achievement, meaning that the transition towards a numerical grading system is fraught with risk. This applies particularly to geography, which is in the second wave of subjects to be reformed, from 2016. Employers and colleges, as well as parents and students, will need very clear guidance on the equivalence between the current letter grades (which apply to some subjects from 2015) and the new number grades.

We remain steadfast in our opposition to Ofqual’s decision that geography GCSE be assessed solely through terminal examinations. We regard terminal exams as an inadequate means of assessing rich learning processes such as fieldwork, and we therefore fundamentally disagree with Ofqual’s decision to assess fieldwork in this way. We sent this letter to the Secretary of State in July 2013, which specifically addressed the importance of coursework and advised the Secretary of State to re-consider plans for exam only assessment. A further letter was sent to Elizabeth Truss, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Education and Childcare, in December 2013 expressing the Association’s view that fieldwork in geography should not be assessed purely through theoretical examination questions. The GA’s position was not to advocate internal assessment but rather a form of assessment which would allow candidates to show evidence of the applied knowledge, skills and understanding they have developed through their first-hand experiences. Through our principled stance on the importance of fieldwork, the GCSE criteria for geography do contain a strengthened entitlement for students in this respect.


Ofqual - Completing GCSE, AS and A Level Reform - consultation response from the Geographical Association (July 2014)

DfE – GCSE content criteria consultation – government response (1.11.13)

GA - Draft GCSE geography subject criteria - consultation response from the Geographical Association (16.07.13)

DfE - Reformed GCSE Subject Content - consultation document (25.06.13)

Ofqual - Revised regulatory requirements for reformed GCSEs – consultation documents (June 2013)

GA - Secondary School Accountability Consultation - The GA’s response highlights the importance of geography and argues that humanities should be compulsory at KS4 (02.05.13)

GA - Key stage 4 qualification reform - GA guidance document for reformed key stage 4 qualifications and the implications for teachers. (12.03.13)

GA - Reforming key stage 4 qualifications - consultation response from the Geographical Association, addressing proposed English Baccalaureate Certificates. Although these qualifications were abandoned, the response is still relevant to GCSE reform. (December 2012)

What Next?

In brief, we intend to:

  • continue to work closely with the DfE, Ofqual and awarding bodies to ensure that the specifications on offer later this year present opportunities for a rich and engaging 14-16 curriculum.
  • As ever, now that the policy work is over, turn our attention to practical support for teachers, in the form of CPD, publications and other materials. Look out for CPD courses from summer 2015.
  • Once the new GCSE is underway, monitor the impact of GCSE reform on the provision of GCSE carefully, in order to protect the quality of the experience students receive. We hope our members will, as always, help to keep us informed of developments in schools and be willing to share examples of best practice e.g. in fieldwork provision. We will continue to share our views and evidence about quality fieldwork with both the DfE and Ofqual.

Links and resources


DfE - Latest news and information about key stage 4 qualifications on the DfE website

GCSE reforms Q&A - Q and A on the Guardian website

Ofqual summary of qualification changes


Women and development

Browse the Resources page for more free GCSE resources


GCSE Toolkit: For Richer and Poorer? A study of uneven development

GCSE Toolkit: Going Global? A study of our interconnected world

GCSE Toolkit: Is the Future Sussed? A study of sustainable urban living

GCSE Toolkit: Hot and Bothered? A study of climate change


The spring 2014 issue of Teaching Geography includes a number of articles about the new GCSE

Assessing without levels from the autumn 2014 issue of Teaching Geography

The spring 2015 issue of Teaching Geography includes a number of articles about the new GCSE

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1 Comment

Isobel George

Isobel George GA Member

There is no rational for using a numerical system; it is change for the sake of change.

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