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‘Our focus remains on working together to strengthen the current exam system’

Posted on: 05 Dec 2017
Posted by: Julie Robinson

Following the recent Education Select Committee hearing on the integrity of public exams, ISC general secretary, Julie Robinson, sets the record straight about alternatives to the mainstream exams.

The Independent Schools Council (ISC) welcomed the recent Education Select Committee hearing on the integrity of public exams. It afforded us the opportunity to make it crystal clear that, while we don’t think it would be sensible to ban teachers from setting questions – they are the experts after all – there is clearly a conflict of interest if an exam-setter is teaching the course. Therefore, we are pleased that Ofqual is considering ways of tackling the problem.


Following the hearing, inaccurate claims were made in an opinion piece by John Dunford that independent schools ‘play the exam system’ by taking alternative qualifications to GCSEs and A-levels, along with untrue suggestions that our schools are not working with colleagues in the state sector for the improvement of the whole system.


Mr Dunford claims that the 'Pre-U was launched “by schools seeking to enhance their place in the market through the appearance of exclusivity”. That was never the intention.


Indeed, the independent schools concerned regarded the Pre-U as a significant risk. It was a ‘currency’ unfamiliar to both universities and parents. No, the Pre-U was never a marketing tool. It was adopted because it was linear, without the disadvantages of modules, AS levels and multiple resits. Michael Gove based his reform to the A-levels on these principles.


The second advantage of the Pre-U was that the syllabuses were more interesting and a better preparation for university, with more essay writing and better use of practical experiments in science.


It is wrong to call the Pre-U an 'independent school exam'. Just 3% of exams taken by Year 13s in independent schools this year were Pre-Us. Some 40% of Pre-U candidates were from the state sector. These pupils tend to be amongst the most able.


Mr Dunford also claims that “now that GCSE and A levels have been made harder post-Gove, the Pre-U and IGCSE may have become easier in comparison”.


The only way in which A-levels have been made harder is that they are linear. The level of difficulty in all other respects is unchanged. But Pre-Us were already linear, already more demanding in this respect.


IGCSEs were adopted by many independent schools because they were harder than GCSEs - that is, they had a more demanding syllabus and tougher questions. Independent schools with able pupils were simply unhappy with the quality of GCSE syllabuses, something that was also acknowledged by Mr Gove.


The drift to IGCSE started with maths, largely as a reaction against the lower standard of GCSE maths coursework. Later on this spread to English literature and the sciences, with some also taking English language IGCSE.


UCAS reviews periodically all qualifications relevant for entry to higher education and produces a tariff showing comparability of different qualifications at different grade boundaries. Universities review the predictive value of many different qualifications (including Scottish Highers, Welsh and Northern Irish A-levels, which are now different from English A-levels, the IB, and hundreds of overseas qualifications). On these two measures the Pre-U and IGCSE have been found to be at least as rigorous as the alternatives.


It is important that there are alternatives to the mainstream exams. The recent reforms have brought the GCSE more in line with the IGCSE and the A-level more in line with the Pre-U. Schools adopt the Pre-U, IB or IGCSE because they think they are more interesting to teach and a better preparation for university.


Still, the majority of our pupils take A-levels and GCSEs.


Moving forward, our focus continues to be on working together to support the strengthening of our current exam system to prevent misconduct or malpractice from happening in the future and, ultimately, to further enhance educational opportunities for children and young people.

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About Julie Robinson

Julie Robinson is chief executive at ISC.

Before becoming ISC chief executive, Julie was a teacher, housemistress and head of Ardingly College Junior School and then Vinehall Prep School in Sussex. After these headships, she was education and training director for the Independent Association of Preparatory Schools (IAPS). She is governor of a state school and an independent school.