Education Jun 9 2010

What is the IGCSE and what does it mean for our schools?

By Chris Husbands 4 comments

One of the peculiarities of the English examination system lies in its semi-privatised approach to qualifications,  qualifications development and the provision of examinations to schools.  A bit of history helps.  External examining in English schools was, by and large the preserve of the public and grammar schools, and examinations were developed by universities as an admissions, and later as an income generating activity:  the title of the once powerful ‘Joint Matriculation Board of the Northern Universities’ gives enough clues to the origin and purposes of external examination.

As in so many other parts of the English education system, status, hierarchy and class dominated.  At the top of the system were the examination boards of the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge; beneath them came those of London and the JMB.  Most children, in most schools, were not prepared for external examination.  The introduction of the CSE in 1965 began to change this, but largely preserved the hierarchy of the examination system – CSE examinations were organised and provided by a multitude of often very local examining groups;  higher status O-levels,  and all A-levels were provided by the older established examination boards,  and vocational qualifications through a mass of employer organisations.

The development of GCSE in the mid-1980s brought some order, and considerable market simplification.   The innovation of GCSE was that it provided, for the first time, national criteria as to what a school leaving examination in a given subject should provide.  Largely as a result of the need to secure approval and the shifting economics of examinations, smaller CSE boards became unviable and there was a process of merger which produced large ‘examination groups’.

GCSE represented a centralisation of control over assessment much as the National Curriculum, three years later, was a centralisation of control over curriculum,  and it had much the same results – there some innovatory, experimental provision disappeared,  but in return there was greater standardisation of provision and expectation.   As a by-product,  the interest of universities in their examination boards declined substantially, though it had been waning for some time.

The 1990s saw further centralisation; expectations of examination groups were increased, market management became more aggressive and the processes of merger produced three large Awarding Bodies.  However, from the point of view of schools, there remained considerable freedom of choice: in a highly constrained and controlled market, schools decided which of the three Awarding Bodies’ examinations to enter their pupils for. In England, after the 1998 School Standards and Framework Act, schools could not enter pupils for examinations which were not regulated or approved by the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority.  QCA requirements underpinned the examination system with minimum requirements, and drove assessment practices.

However,  the examination system in the early twenty-first century bore many of the traces of the educational apartheid from which it had grown:  there was a lack of coherence between academic and vocational qualifications, poorly articulated progression routes and little consensus on the relationship between curriculum and assessment.

A-levels were a classic example.  A-levels had developed after the Second World War largely as a matriculation requirement for university entry.   Little thought had been given to their purpose as assessments of learning up to the age of 18.   There were repeated attempts to replace or revise A-levels,  but they foundered on the intense conservatism of the educational system and, critically ministers:  the classic example was the 1985 Higginson Report which was notoriously rejected by Mrs Thatcher within hours of its publication. The Tomlinson Review in 2003/4 sought to provide a single over-arching framework for 14-19, addressing,  perhaps for the first time all of these issues in a single overall structure, but – again – ministers (and certainly Downing Street) were reluctant to address the issue of A-level.

Awarding Bodies, which grew out of Examination Groups which grew out of Examination Boards,  were odd, quasi-private institutions.  In 2002 one of these, Edexcel was fully privatised when it was taken over by Pearsons – effectively handing control of both examinations and the textbooks needed to prepare for them to a FTSE listed company.

Awarding Bodies sought to grow their market share in a number of ways –  by price and product competition, by expanding through competition in England,  by expanding into new markets (often new vocational provision) or by expanding overseas.  OCR,  the Awarding Body which grew out of the University of Cambridge Local Examinations Syndicate,  prioritised growth overseas and developed the  IGCSE (International GCSE) largely for the overseas market:  unregulated,  outside the control of UK regulators and without reference to the National Curriculum.

The IGCSE was a largely traditional examination for mechanical and business rather than ideological reasons – it placed more emphasis on terminal examination and less on coursework because this was a cheaper approach to assessment, though it chimed with some of the expectations of the overseas market whilst still being benchmarked against the English-language core concept of the GCSE. Slowly,  some private schools in England saw in the IGCSE an examination which offered “traditional” virtues:  final examination,  low regulation and a relationship with their own expressed values.   However, it remained unregulated by QCA.

For a low-regulation political party,  the IGCSE struck chords, and in the run up to the 2010 election,  the Conservative opposition argued that IGCSE should be available to “all” schools.  In doing so they saw the IGCSE as a battering ram to attack approaches to assessment which had underpinned GCSE,  and to attack regulation more generally.

However, the decision – and early decision of the coalition government — to ‘allow’  state schools to offer IGCSE is actually far-reaching.  As this narrative suggests,  it reaches back into the heart of the educational divisions –  the divisions of class, status and hierarchy – which underlie – oh, so shallow under the surface – English education.   In the 1960s, there was a clear pecking order of examinations:  O-level for an academic minority,  CSEs for the upper reaches of the secondary modern, and vocational training for the majority.  IGCSE needs to be seen in this context as an attempt to restore the hierarchy of qualifications.

Other Awarding Bodies – needing to compete for the same market – will now develop their own equivalents of IGCSE.  The vision of a coherent, inclusive assessment system, the potential prize of Tomlinson, has been lost.  In its place comes the vision of a highly differentiated sorting system which reinforces and entrenches the hierarchies of schooling, higher education and the highly unequal society in which they operate.

4 Responses to “What is the IGCSE and what does it mean for our schools?”

  1. Stuart Billington says:

    I have never visited this website before, but am grateful for the clear, well written history laid out above.

    What I reflect on (as an experienced secondary science teacher), however, is that the needs of a student who will never study science beyond 16 really are very different to the needs of a student who will. In an ideal world in which curriculum time was not at a premium everyone could study every aspect — but this isn't the case and it is very appropriate for students with different “exit strategies” to receive a different education, one tailored to their needs. This isn't elitist or an attempt to reinstall some historical hierarchy. It is a genuine desire to want to do what is best by all children. Indeed, what is clear from the article is that once upon a time, different qualifications did do this.

    Perhaps it is worth noting that the O-levels/CSE/vocational divides described in this article were consequential of the segregated education system itself in which pupils were physically in different schools (grammars, secondary moderns, etc). This physical and social segregation is gone within the state comprehensive system of today — at least in design (a few grammars remain and house prices play their part). To offer a spread of qualifications tailored to support different outcomes is not to impose a hierarchy. “Hierarchy” implies that some are better than others, but with the word “better” not interpreted in a positive light.

    At my school, I would relish the opportunity to be able to teach what amounts to scientific literacy to those who will never touch science again beyond living an educated life in a technological democracy permeated by countless poor gutter press science stories. I would love for the technically-minded to get some vocational experience. And I would love for the often off-putting academic rigour to be spared for those who need/invite it so that they can be well-prepared for further study and successful careers.

    The current GCSE tries and fails gloriously to do all of these things. At the moment, we are failing all of our children. Is the IGCSE the solution? No, of course it isn't. As the author describes, it is itself flawed. But for some students, it will be a welcome blessing and a definite improvement. The lesser of two evils, if you wish, as it may be better than the status quo, even if it does fall short of the ideal.

  2. Laura says:

    Except, the new Science GCSE includes a substantial amount of scientific 'literacy' with a final exam paper focused on the interpretation of just the kind of news stories you are on about. The technically-minded *do* get amazing vocational experience in the new Diplomas which truly marry vocational experience (at least 40 days at Level 3, and 7 employer-trips each year) with academic knowledge (all Diplomas have written exams in the diploma subject *plus* english, maths and ICT). Those who want to be academic have A-Levels along with the Extended Project Qualification and Critical Thinking AS-options to expand independent knowledge, research and thinking skills for anyone who just loves the process of learning.

    In the last five years the National Curriculum plus 14-19 qualifications have done all the things we wanted them to do (bar fully integrate A-Levels with Diplomas). So why don't people know this? Because it's difficult to get good news into the papers and because most teachers moan when they have to deal with change (because it does make life tougher initially), so anyone who knows a teacher hears their moaning and thinks things have got worse. But please, I promise, they haven't.

  3. Stuart says:

    I agree about what you say about the literacy, in principle — but it is handled incredibly badly by the AQA approach, which half of all students sit. I can't comment on the other specs.

    A-levels are too late for the academic. GCSEs bore them stupid, turning some of them away from science, no matter how hard the teacher tries.

    Diplomas — not widely offered, soon to be less so.

    Moaning teachers — yes, fair enough, many do moan and for the wrong reasons. But it is an exceptionally blinkered view to claim that they are all moaning because they don't want to “deal with the change”. In fact, I find this extremely insulting. On the contrary, every teacher I know wants to be as good as they can be and give their pupils the best education they can. What they moan about, quite seriously, is that the current system makes it impossible to do this. It ties their hands behind their backs — for no good reason at all beyond the whim of whoever is the schools or education minister of the day. This is further exacerbated by commercial interests of publishers getting cosy with the awarding bodies. You perhaps forget that teachers are experts in what they do. Spend half a term in a science department and you'll see that for yourself.

    I am a head of physics in one of the most acclaimed state comprehensives in the country. I have 10 years of experience. I have been involved in curriculum review and lobbying for over 3 years. I am not “moaning”, lacking intelligence, under-informed or inexperienced. What I am, in fact, is absolutely incensed that every single one of education's stakeholders (teachers, universities, industry, employers) are excluded from any decision-making capability whatsoever, while Arts graduates arrogantly dictate what, in their opinion, is best.

    This site's “about” page is absolutely correct to state that the present is amazingly better than education of the 60s. But “better” is not the same as “good enough”. Our education system is plagued with serious flaws. Celebrating it is to don the rose-tinted glasses and then to stick your head in the ground for good measure.

  4. Laura says:

    Of course you naively assume that I *haven't* spent a lot of time in a science department. Much like yourself I am a Head of Department although one at the opposite end of the spectrum, having always worked in schools fighting their way out of 'Unsatisfactory' ratings. Maybe this accounts for the difference in teaching attitudes we have encountered!

    I also agree with much that you say. Many teachers are expert in learning and the children they teach (though this is not even in all schools). I completely agree that the duality of exam boards and publishers has been irrevocably damaging. BUT – my post was about why the general public don't get the message that the current education system is “amazingly better” and I do think that is because many teachers give out a negative view when they talk about their work. The reason they may do this is because they are so often ignored and things tend to be botched. You are quite right in saying that stakeholders are rarely listened to, and I agree it is damaging.

    Still, I wish that teachers would spend more time talking up the things that ARE “better” (e.g. diplomas, an attempt at non-specialist scientific literacy, functional maths), in addition to questioning how to make things “good enough”. We so often focus on what isn't there that we end up damaging our own profession.

    On another note – I'm intrigued to know why you think GCSEs bore students. As someone working in a school with a high level of EAL and SEN I rarely see this but I appreciate we are not the norm. And if the iGCSE isn't the answer, what is? A better spec, perhaps? Given that scientific literacy is new I think exam boards will improve over time and ensure exams and breadth/depth are more suited to assessment objectives (this is certainly the case for the new A-level specs and Functional Skills).

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