IGCSEs and state recognition

Michael Gove, the Education Secretary, has just announced that state schools will be able to offer IGCSEs (International GCSEs) in all subjects from September. As he says, this will allow pupils at state secondaries to compete on a level playing field with their privately-educated peers.

At Oxford Open Learning, we welcome this development, but it is only a first step. It provides implicit acknowledgment of the academic credibility of IGCSEs but this was rarely in doubt within universities and colleges. Still, it provdes valuable reassurance for thousands of adult learners who, until now, have been uncertain that IGCSEs will carry the same weight as GCSEs, e.g. in terms of satisfying the entry criteria for teacher training or a variety of other HE and career options.

Yet until IGCSEs are funded on the same scale as ordinary GCSEs, no state school will, in practice, be able to take the plunge. They cannot offer courses with no funding, however superior they seem, especially when the costs of re-training staff and re-educating parents are included.

Equivalent funding needs to be granted as soon as possible. The fear for many in the state education sector is that a two-tier system will develop, like the old split between CSE and O-level, and that GCSE will become increasingly marginalised. But the difference between GCSE and IGCSE is not just one of academic rigour; it is also a matter of convenience and accessibility.

The controlled assessment required for most new GCSEs has disenfranchised whole categories of students, including home learners and distance learners, and it is vital that a practicable alternative like IGCSE, without all the coursework baggage, is suitably recognised and validated.

John Dunford, the general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, says that IGCSEs do not meet the rigorous standards of normal GCSEs. I know of very few disinterested educationalists who share this view. Anyone who has compared an IGCSE specification with the equivalent GCSE specification in any subject (and I have looked at many) has come to the conclusion that IGCSEs require equivalent breadth and greater depth across the topic areas.

This is easiest to judge in subjects like Maths and Science where IGCSE specifications (e.g. set by Edexcel) include all the “normal” GCSE topics, plus a range of extra topics that most state school pupils do not encounter till A-level. My impression is that IGCSEs offer much better preparati0n for A-level and higher education.

I believe that most teachers share this view and would like to make the switch to IGCSE. The pressure will grow on the government to ensure that IGCSEs are funded on the same scale as GCSEs but no one knows for sure what impact this will have on GCSEs. Some interesting times lie ahead!

(Dr) Nicholas Smith,
Principal, Oxford Open Learning

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