'Jury is out on whether the new GCSEs will demand more than their international rivals'

Posted on: 17 Feb 2015

Bernard Trafford, headmaster of Newcastle upon Tyne Royal Grammar School, discusses the IGCSE...

The most recent spat over GCSE league tables furnished so fine an example of government doublethink that George Orwell would have been proud of it.

Only a few years ago former education secretary Michael Gove was keen to persuade maintained schools to take the international alternative, the IGCSE, following the independent sector which had turned to it in a big way. IGCSEs were, in general, felt to be more appropriate to more able candidates: more traditionally content-heavy than the GCSE; assessed by a single terminal examination; and free of the coursework that bedevilled GCSEs, taking children out of subject teaching for weeks at a time while they completed it under strict supervision in school time.

Honesty requires me to note that independents also made the move because smaller exam boards promised (and generally delivered) better and more reliable marking: thus while most schools up and down the country gnashed their teeth over the 2013 English language marking debacle, those that had moved to IGCSE were smiling – and not marked down.

Here’s the doublethink. Government is now pouring scorn on IGCSE. In a cunning bit of wording, current education secretary Nicky Morgan (echoed on numerous occasions by Department for Education spokespeople) proclaimed that she had rid the government’s performance tables of "valueless qualifications". Cleverly she didn't mention IGCSE specifically, lumping it instead with other perhaps unlamented qualifications while simultaneously, and rightly, removing opportunities for endless re-sits.

In the removal of recognition from some of those English or maths IGCSEs, espoused in great numbers by the independent sector, there was a subtle (not that subtle, actually) implication that they no longer had currency. The message was that the newly government-beefed-up GCSE is the answer: all other qualifications are inferior.

As spats go, it was a minor one. It was also an own goal by government. So absurd is it to see Eton College at the bottom of the league tables that the DfE’s changes have effectively rendered its own performance tables meaningless. And not before time, those of us would say who have questioned their value ever since they first evolved.

But is IGCSE now easier than the new GCSE? And is that a turnaround from the position where independent schools first, and then many maintained schools, chose it precisely because it was that bit (not a lot) more challenging?

I think the jury is out. Schools won’t start teaching the new “new” GCSEs, all linear courses, until September 2015. the much-vaunted "toughening-up” of last year’s GCSE results was mere tinkering.

Among the new specifications for examinations in 2017, the new maths GCSE looks as if it may indeed be more demanding than IGCSE. I can envisage many academic schools (including my own) being attracted to it. Currently my maths department is looking hard at it, but has made no decision yet.

The way I choose to run my school, I allow subject departments, as the specialists, to decide what qualifications they enter their students for, whether it's GCSE, IGCSE, A level, international A level or Pre-U (my history department is about to adopt the latter).

It may be that, as the new schemes of work appear, some departments in my school will say that they prefer the new GCSE specification for their subject: if they do, they'll be free to choose it.

In any case, it's not really about allegedly "easier" or "more difficult" exams. My colleagues are looking for courses that will give their students a good grasp of the content and grammar of the subject, provide appropriate ranges of stretch and challenge, furnish a strong basis for further study at A level, and be reliably assessed and efficiently marked. Therefore the decision depends partly on our impression of the efficiency or otherwise of the exam board.

Maybe the independent sector will swing back towards the government's favoured GCSEs: if so, that will be a feather in Nicky Morgan’s cap, because it will have decided that they are indeed the better exam. If it doesn't, then she will fail to fulfill her lofty claim of having a monopoly on the better courses and qualifications.

Perhaps she has grounds for that supreme confidence, though I don’t share it. In truth, I'm surprised her current Sir Humphrey didn't sidle up to her and quietly say, "That's a courageous comment, secretary of state". And we all know what happens to politicians unwise enough to be courageous.

This blog first appeared in The TES.

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