GCSE v IGCSE: the debate continues

Recent press coverage suggesting that the new GCSEs are more challenging than the IGCSE is unfair and misguided, argues independent school head, Russell Slatford

Normally, the festive period is a quiet time for those of us in education: the final assembly – awash with Christmas jumpers – has been and gone and, usually, it is not a time for the airwaves to be inundated with education chatter. Not so this year, following a publication based on the analysis about the GCSE v IGCSE debate from the Right Honourable Lucy Powell MP’s office. This led to headlines from national newspapers, including ‘Private schools cheating GCSE system to boost results’.

IGCSEs have long since been adopted into the curriculum of the independent sector, initially because they lacked the coursework element of the original GCSEs, and were therefore seen as more rigorous. State schools are not able to choose these qualifications. Coursework and controlled assessments have long been viewed as cumbersome and time-consuming; few would argue that they take an inordinate amount of time – particularly for the teacher – for little gain in the final examination mark, perhaps as little as 20%. As such, many independent schools chose to move away from that style of teaching and assessment; this has been the case for well over 10 years. The terminal examinations of IGCSE are generally longer, and some of the questioning perhaps more complex; it was certainly considered a harder qualification in its early years. IGCSEs are recognised by all tertiary institutions, employers and universities, although, oddly, not by the DfE since 2014.

The latest debate, following the review, is concerned with how academically difficult the new GCSEs have become, and how they compare to IGCSEs. While the latter are now viewed by some as being easier, there is little or no evidence for this.

If we value a broad and varied approach to education, then IGCSEs have a place in any school that considers them of value

Let’s not forget that every subject is different. For each one there are many GCSE boards for schools to choose from, each offering a different approach to similar content, each marked and assessed in a slightly different way. It has long been the view of those in education that it has been the competition between examination boards that has driven standards down. In other words, a race to the bottom, with boards vying for the highest percentage of pass marks and largest number of top grades. So, the recent review has made the examinations harder. There is little doubt that many pupils in the last few years have found the increased content more difficult to master, but grade boundaries have rightly been adjusted downwards to compensate. The evidence, therefore, supports a very similar GCSE grade profile nationally, as we have transitioned from the old qualifications to the new.

We now find ourselves at something of an impasse, with those broadly working in state education believing that – with the harder GCSE – their pupils are at an unfair disadvantage compared to those in the independent sector, where teachers are able to choose IGCSEs. While evidence recently published by FFT Education Datalab states that those taking IGCSEs are at an unfair advantage, there are notable concerns about how they have compared data; for one thing, there are over 500,000 results from state schools for English language, compared with under 20,000 from the independent sector. Furthermore, we have no way to judge how many of those results are from selective schools; clearly, this would make a significant difference to performance. It seems they have tried to compensate for this in their calculations, concluding that “at the top end of the distribution, perhaps IGCSEs are indeed not graded quite as severely as reformed GCSEs… the same effect was not evident looking at A*-C grades”. This is hardly convincing evidence to support such strong headlines in the press.

It has long been the view of those in education that it has been the competition between examination boards that has driven standards down

One tweet particularly caught my eye over the festive period. Mike Buchanan, executive director of Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference, wrote – rightly, in my opinion – ‘if only all head teachers could make similar choices [of examination boards] based on professional experience and knowledge’. I have always taken the view that, if we genuinely value the individual pupil, we cannot have an education system where one size fits all; the greater the variety of pedagogy, non-examined and examined assessment, the better. So, it can only be helpful to allow teachers and schools to choose what approach they think best suits the strengths and interests of their pupils. After all, the outcome for our pupils will be very different, as they head into further education or a widespread variety of careers and opportunities. Having data that allows us to make shallow and misplaced sweeping statements has always been harmful as to how we educate our children. It also adds a growing burden on how young people compare themselves to others, although the issue of mental health – while extremely important and certainly tied up in this debate – is for another day.

Let’s stop finger-pointing and consider what is best for the pupils in all our schools. If we value a broad and varied approach to education, then IGCSEs have a place in any school that considers them of value to their children. Surely the attention of those who feel that IGCSEs are giving some an unfair advantage should be aimed at the Government, not the independent sector. My advice would be to point your finger in that direction, to facilitate a change that will provide greater educational opportunity and variety for the pupils in your schools.

Russell Slatford is headmaster of Bournemouth Collegiate School