UPCOMING COURSES:    24th January 2019 Teaching Writing Across the Curriculum

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GCSE Reforms – IGCSE Versus GCSE, Guess who Wins?

The latest GCSE reforms were originally instigated by Michael Gove as Education Secretary. His ideology was to create an English system for English students studying English texts. He wanted to improve standards, and believed that to do so, meant a return to the O Level style examination paper.  The GCSE English Language and English Literature examinations are now 100% examination. He also insisted that there be a single entry for all examinations in the June of Year 11. He said that we needed grades 9-1 so that universities and employers could identify the very top students, and that a Grade 9 would equate to an A**, Grade 8 an A* and Grade 7 an A.

Unfortunately, what has evolved is that this ideology has only been enforced on the state maintained schools and NOT on the private schools who are free to take the International GCSEs.

The Differences between Private and Maintained State Schools

It was demoralising enough when it emerged that the independent sector could still sit IGCSE in 2017, when the state sector had to rush through with 100% examinations. This means that they can still take advantage of 40% coursework, 20% Speaking and Listening and 40% examination for another year – NOT a level playing field. But, the assumption was that they would have to sit the Grade 9-1 examinations in 2018. As a profession we have been under the impression that all students would be sitting the new style examination ESPECIALLY at private schools so they can EVIDENCE and CONFIRM to universities and employees that their students are ‘truly the best’.

Imagine my shock when I downloaded the Edexcel (Pearson) International GCSE for English Literature and English Language Grade 9-1, first sitting 2018, only to discover that their new curriculum has an option for:

  • 40% coursework for English Language;
  • 40% coursework for English Literature.

YET it is still going to be awarded Grades 9-1. Therefore, it will appear to be the same – but it is in fact very different.

Pearson claim, ‘The qualification supports seamless progression to further study, with up-to-date content reflecting the latest thinking in the subject. It is comparable to the UK reformed GCSEs in terms of the level of demand and assessment standards.’

There are two issues:

  • Independent schools can do 40% coursework for GCSE English Literature and English Language – THIS IS NOT COMPARABLE;
  • State schools HAVE to sit their examinations in JUNE –whereas this IGCSE has a June and a January entry – THIS IS NOT COMPARABLE.

50% of English Literature Papers Are Marked Incorrectly

To add further confusion, according to the first major study into marking accuracy by Ofqual they have admitted that ‘Nearly half of pupils in English Literature are not awarded the “correct” grade on a particular exam paper because of marking inconsistencies and the design of the tests…’ (Schools Week 16th November 2016). Consequently, this leaves the English state students at an even greater disadvantage. If the examination is worth 60% and marked incorrectly, there is enough of a cushion for coursework to accommodate this. If it is 100% examination, this will mean 50% of the state school students will receive an incorrect grade for their GCSE. This is undoubtedly unacceptable.

 Issues with the new GCSEs:

  • The new style of 100% examinations are not fit for purpose for modern life;
  • The significant issues associated with a narrow curriculum and intense pressure and the links to mental health and well-being;
  • It is UNFAIR – if independent sector students can sit 40% coursework and Ofqual and an international body deem that it is as rigorous as state school examinations. If this is so, English state schools should have this option.
  • How can English state school children hope to achieve a Grade 9 when they are competing with students who can sit 40% of the qualification as coursework?

Gove claimed to want a world-class education system that championed the English – but it has it become a mechanism to suppress the achievements of the students in the English state system?

Is IGCSE Easier?

In addition, there are clearly differences in the academic rigour of the new GCSE examinations for English state school students in comparison with the IGCSE sat by the independent sector. To highlight the differences, I have included the outlines of IGCSE English Literature first examined in 2018, and GCSE first examined in 2017. With reference to the course outlines, it can be evidenced that not only are independent schools able sit coursework and be entered for exams in January and June; the examinations they are sitting are actually easier too.

IGCSE Versus GCSE English Literature

For the sake of a straightforward comparison I am using Pearson IGCSE first examined in 2018 and GCSE English Literature first examined in 2017. (Independent schools can still sit the old style IGCSE in 2017). Below, I have bullet pointed the main differences, which serve to highlight that it is not just the coursework that is a factor in making the IGCSE easier, it is also the content, the approach, the length of the examinations, and the academic rigour of the examinations. For the sake of comparison, the state qualification is GCSE and independent is IGCSE.


The Main differences:

  • IGCSE has a June or January entry whereas GCSE students must sit their examination in May/June;
  • If the IGCSE Paper 2 option is selected it is 100% examination – BUT, it is open book. GCSE is closed book.
  • For the Paper 2 examination option, for IGCSE you can select a Shakespeare OR a 19th Century text, and it is open book – GCSE have to do BOTH, and they are closed book;
  • For IGCSE the selection of texts is multicultural – including translations and American literature, the state curriculum is restricted to English texts (in my opinion, to its detriment);
  • The texts that IGCSE allow are (in my opinion) more accessible, and more straightforward to teach – plus most of the texts selected, many of us have taught for many years;
  • IGCSE – 2 hours of examination, if coursework totalling 40% is submitted.  IGCSE – 3 hour 30 minutes in examination in total if they sit 100% examination. Whereas for GCSE it is 4 hours in total.
  • IGCSE Paper 1 (60% of IGCSE) Pearson say it is ‘Closed book: texts are not allowed in the examination. However, students will be provided with the anthology poems in the examination.’ This means they will be provided with blank anthologies and therefore will not have to memorise texts. In comparison, for GCSE – BOTH examinations are CLOSED book – students have to memorise quotations from a 19th century text, Shakespeare, a modern text, an anthology of 15 poems – (They are given one poem, but must compare this with one poem from the anthology from memory);
  • IGCSE – ‘Section A – Unseen Poetry: one 20-mark essay question exploring the meaning and effects created in an unseen poem. The poem will be reproduced in the question paper.’ Whereas for GCSE Part 2: ONE question comparing two unseen contemporary poems.  This is much more difficult, and requires a great deal more skill.

In the media, we are repeatedly told how much better private schools are in comparison to those in the state system. Surely, if the government are interested in promoting social mobility they should let the state schools sit more straightforward examinations. This would allow for social deprivation, lack of facilities, larger class sizes, a teacher shortage and major cuts in funding in education? Or, in fairness, what we should have is a UK system that examines all students equally.

This is only an example of how ONE of the GCSEs is harder. This then has to be put into a context of the rest of the curriculum for these students where the current Year 9 will have 100% examinations in almost all of their subjects. And we are actually wondering why there is an increase in student mental health issues.

Why are state school students no longer sitting IGCSE?

As IGCSE can no longer be included in performance tables, state schools do not allow students to take these examinations. In reaction to the government’s League Table ruling, many independent schools have opted out of the League Tables. The Daily Telegraph published an article called: The private schools at the bottom of the GCSE league tables. This article lists the many independent schools who have opted out of the League Tables, and who can blame them? They are doing this to enable their students to access more straightforward examinations that will give students a greater chance of success.

Less Risk Equals Less Pressure in the Independent Sector

Cambridge outline how they have adapted the reforms to accommodate the Independent Sector. They state that with the ‘Existing syllabuses with 9-1 grading options – We will support independent schools in the UK by offering 9-1 graded IGCSEs in our most popular subjects. We are making 9-1 versions of 13 existing syllabuses available over the next three years. … This means that schools will be able to retain A*-G or move to 9-1 grading. The syllabuses will be distinguished from each other by their syllabus codes. Although they are separate qualifications, the syllabus content and the method of assessment will be the same in each syllabus’.

How can this be comparable to what the state schools have to deliver? All they are doing is changing the letters to numbers, for grades. Nevertheless, the use of numbers suggest that the students have sat the same examinations as the state students. They go on to say, ‘Cambridge has always benchmarked its IGCSE to GCSE to ensure comparability of standards. This will continue to be the case. Cambridge IGCSEs have been benchmarked by UK NARIC, the national agency in the UK for the recognition and comparison of international qualifications.’

Ultimately, universities and employers will still be accepting what Cambridge admit are unregulated exams in the UK. This is unfair because to employers and universities it WILL LOOK LIKE students have all sat the same examinations. Why not just stay with the letter grades? It appears that it is their deliberate intention to make it look like the students in the independent sector are sitting equivalent examinations, and they are not!

Cambridge explain that ‘Whichever grading scale schools choose to offer, universities have informed us that they are committed to maintaining consistent entry requirements and that students with A*-G graded IGCSEs will not be disadvantaged.’

I appreciate that independent schools did not want to go ahead and deliver such a narrow curriculum, and they have clearly lobbied so they are not penalised for NOT following the UK government curriculum guidelines. BUT, who is fighting for the state school students? Surely, many children in the state sector are significantly more disadvantaged than many children the independent sector?

Suggested Examination Reforms for GCSE:

  1. Reinstate coursework as an option. – One of the examination papers in each subject could be converted to a coursework unit.
  2. Create modules. Reinstate the option for staggered entries.
  3. Allow open book examinations.
  4. Allow state schools to sit the IGCSEs and remain in the League Tables.

NO ONE has challenged the government strongly enough to stop these ridiculous sets of examinations for the English state school students. If they had, they would not exist. If we are to define the systems as being winners and losers, then it seems to be the state educated students that are most definitely the losers. They are suffering a narrow and dull curriculum, tested to near death and then suffer with multiple examinations over a short space of time that their whole futures are reliant on. Why has this been allowed to happen to our education system? Unless we do something very quickly, we will find ourselves with a LOST generation of children who RELY on the state to provide something that as a nation we have always been proud of, a FREE and ENGAGING education that is an ENTITLEMENT for ALL!

This article is published in the June edition of NATE’s magazine ‘Teaching Matters’. It is a combination of two previous blogs published on the Everything English Education website.


https://qualifications.pearson.com/en/qualifications/edexcel-gcses/english-language-2015.html – English State Schools –  English Language GCSE – 100% examination

https://qualifications.pearson.com/en/qualifications/edexcel-gcses/english-literature-2015.html – English State Schools – English Literature GCSE – 100% exmination

https://qualifications.pearson.com/en/qualifications/edexcel-international-gcses-and-edexcel-certificates/international-gcse-english-language-a2016. – PAGE 8 of the specification – International GCSE. Students must complete Paper 1 (examination), plus either Paper 2 (examination) or Paper 3. Paper 3: Poetry and Prose Texts and Imaginative Writing – Internally assessed.

htmlhttps://qualifications.pearson.com/en/qualifications/edexcel-international-gcses-and-edexcel-certificates/international-gcse-english-literature-2016.html – Page 8 – International GCSE -Students must complete Paper 1 (examination), plus either Paper 2 (examination) or Paper 3. Paper 3:  Paper 3: Modern Drama and Literary Heritage Texts – Internally assessed.

Half of English Literature exam papers not given ‘correct’ grade, Ofqual finds Schools Week Reporter – 15:30, Nov 14, 2016

Northern Ireland’s Re-vision of GCSEs and A Levels – NATE News Issue 12