Today’s Guardian includes the following alarming headline: ‘International GCSE offer rejected by the majority of state schools’. Jessica Shepherd’s report notes that only 16 state schools have signed up to teach IGCSEs from this autumn despite the fact that they are now permitted to do so (after the announcement in June by the schools minister, Nick Gibb).
The report is midsleading in many ways. Only 16 schools have told the Cambridge board (CIE) that they will be offering the exams but Cambridge is not the only board offering IGCSE. Edexcel has designed a set of IGCSE specfications which are intended to be better suited to the needs of UK state schools. It is also a little too early to tell how many schools will offer IGCSE this autumn as there is no requirement to notify a board in advance and many are still making plans.
But the Guardian does not make the obvious point. State schools are in no position to offer IGCSE programmes because those programmes are not funded. Only when IGCSE courses are funded at the same level as GCSE courses will we see a large scale shift away from GCSE and towards IGCSE. The government has not yet told us whether (or when) IGCSE programmes will be funded. Until that happens, IGCSE will remain the preserve of the private sector. But the very fact that so many private schools intend to offer IGCSE this year is clear evidence that IGCSEs are seen as a better and more demanding preparation for A-levels and university courses.
Martin Ward, deputy general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, has said that the low figure shows state school teachers have “clearly decided that there is no virtue in their pupils taking IGCSEs”. This is complete nonsense and he knows it. There are some schools where the teachers are aware of the IGCSE option who have decided that it would be too tough for most of their pupils and that it represents a risk to their GCSE rankings, but most have not considered IGCSE at all because of the absence of funding. A party divide has opened up on this issue and it is clear that the ASCL is toeing the Labour Party line.
But there are much wider issues at stake here. Should we compel state schools to deliver a National Curriculum which is carefully controlled by the government? Or should we trust exam boards and universities to set the exams that students, schools and universities want? IGCSEs are currently unregulated but there is no doubt that they are harder than GCSEs. If they become state-regulated, will exam boards start competing (as they have done with GCSE) to make them ever easier in order to attract a higher proportion of state schools? It may be some time before all these issues are satisfactorily settled.
Dr Nicholas Smith,
Principal, Oxford Open Learning