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Key points to remember about IGCSEs

Posted on: 25 Aug 2019
Posted by: Barnaby Lenon

Barnaby Lenon, chairman of the Independent Schools Council, details nine important points about IGCSEs and the reasons why many independent schools chose to offer them.

What do we know about IGCSEs?

  1. They were developed by Pearson and Cambridge International to serve the large market abroad for British qualifications.

  2. They were adopted by independent schools in the UK after 2005 because they were a better preparation for A-level than GCSE – they had more demanding syllabuses and less coursework. The first IGCSE to be adopted on any scale was maths and this was simply a reaction against the banal GCSE coursework, which many teachers felt wasted a lot of time and taught pupils little.

  3. When Michael Gove became secretary of state for education in 2010, he reversed the policy of previous governments and encouraged state schools to start doing the IGCSE. Many did. However, after two years the former head of Ofqual, Glenys Stacey, realised that the popularity of the IGCSE would undermine the GCSE reform process. This is because it is very hard to grade exams using Ofqual’s statistical methods if a large proportion of a cohort are either missing (all the more able or all the less able doing the IGCSE for example) or if the cohort is unstable from one year to the next (with students switching from GCSE to IGCSE or back). She was right. The Department for Education (DfE) changed its mind again and stopped state schools offering the IGCSE. The DfE does not allow IGCSEs to count in its performance tables and that is why the GCSE results of some of the highest-performing schools in Britain (independent schools) appear as zero in these tables.

  4. Mr Gove’s reforms of the GCSE were based on what he learnt about the superiority of the IGCSE – less unhelpful coursework, more demanding content. The GCSE reforms were based on the IGCSE.

  5. The majority of exams taken by independent school pupils are in fact reformed GCSEs, not IGCSEs. Many subjects are not available at IGCSE.

  6. We predict independent schools will gradually move over to the reformed GCSE. There are three reasons why they have not done so already: In the past (for example the A-level reforms of 2000), the introduction of exam reforms has been chaotic and damaged pupils. So, many independent schools decided to wait and see what happened. In fact, the reformed GCSEs have gone well, thanks to Ofqual. But there is a three-year lag between the time that a school can see all is well and the point when, having decided to move to the reformed GCSE, their own pupils sit that exam; they prefer some IGCSE syllabuses to the GCSE syllabuses; the IGCSE continues to perform as a very good basis for A-level study.

  7. Most IGCSEs taken in England are graded 9-1 just like the reformed GCSEs.

  8. Pearson and Cambridge International have been pressed by independent schools, politicians and the DfE to prove that the grading standards of the IGCSE are not easier than those of the reformed GCSE. Cambridge International published a response addressing this issue earlier this year. ISC schools are very keen that IGCSE and GCSE grading standards are the same. We have pushed exam boards on this point for the past three years. If research emerges suggesting that IGCSE grading standards are too generous, we would insist that the exam boards concerned made the necessary adjustments as a condition of our schools sticking with the qualification.

  9. IGCSEs are similar to but not identical to GCSEs; Ofqual is right when it says it cannot easily compare a reformed GCSE script given 40% with an IGCSE script given 41%. They are broadly similar but not the same. But this is also true of Welsh and Northern Irish GCSEs, which operate different grading systems, and Scottish exams (which are not GCSEs), and the hundreds of different exams taken by the huge number of overseas students who come to our universities. Universities cope with this.

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