Oxford Open Learning has been publishing courses directly linked to GCSE specifications for the last 25 years and our experience has been of a slow drift towards less substantial examinations rather than a dramatic recent slide.
The gradual simplification is most apparent in subjects like Mathematics where it is possible to see very specific topics and skills being removed from certain papers becase they are now deemed to be “too hard”. Topics that were once part of O-level or GCSE Mathematics turn up on AS specifications and topics that used to be taught at AS level now figure at A2.
I think the trend has been thrown into sharp relief by the emergence and growing popularity of IGCSE specifications. Working from the basis of our GCSE courses, we have developed a large number of IGCSE courses in the same subjects and, in most cases, this has meant a 50% increase in the depth and breadth of the course. It is probably most apparent in the single sciences (Physics, Biology and Chemistry) but it is also very clear in Geography and Maths, to name but two.
Yet, perversely, IGCSE is still not quite granted even equal status with GCSE in the UK. State schools may teach IGCSE specifications but, as they won’t get funding for it, there is no chance of them doing so. It is left to private schools to opt for IGCSE and they are doing so in large numbers.
Why? For the same reason as private schools are favouring the most rigorous and demanding of the GCSE boards (OCR) – they want specifications which provide a genuine test for bright 16-year-olds and, more importantly, courses which will offer the best possible preparation for A-levels in the same subject. If you are going on to do History A-level, say, it is far better to have an IGCSE under your belt than a GCSE. The top universities know this as well – they will take an A-grade in IGCSE far more seriously than a corresponding A-grade in GCSE.
State schools are forced to maximise their GCSE results and focus on their GCSE league table position (e.g. by finding out which is the “easiest” board and going for that) but this is often to the detriment of the future prospects of the youngsters they educate. Most private schools by contrast are not really interested in whether they have achieved a 98% or a 99% pass rate (A*-C) at GCSE – they are able to take a more long-term view of the education process. We need to enable our state schools to achieve the same thing.