Comparing the relative grading of International GCSEs and reformed GCSEs

On the publication of research commissioned by HMC, Executive Director Mike Buchanan said:

“HMC is committed to ensuring that all pupils, irrespective of where they are educated, are treated fairly and reliably by the exam system.

“Our members choose qualifications for their pupils based on one thing - educational value. They look for challenge for their pupils to help prepare them to do well at A Level; this is the exact opposite of looking for easier exams.

“International GCSEs remain good qualifications which offer students the opportunity to study topics not available in reformed GCSEs. For many years, schools have picked them in some subjects because children also learn content which is highly relevant to their pre-university courses. International GCSEs have long been recognised around the world as high-quality qualifications, perfect for students being educated as global citizens.

 “In fact, the International GCSEs were the starting point for the reformed GCSEs in England and independent schools have always believed state schools should be encouraged to take them.

“We have consistently asked the exam boards to ensure International GCSEs are broadly equivalent in outcomes to GCSEs and have been told they are. Indeed, this was confirmed in evidence by Ofqual to the Education Select Committee in March 2019[i].

“Schools take many exams and rely on exam boards to have robust systems in place to maintain standards and equivalences, including between International GCSEs and reformed GCSEs and between the different English, Welsh and Northern Ireland qualifications. If there is reliable evidence that these have not been maintained adequately then the regulator and the boards must take action to correct matters for all future examinations and ensure students who have already taken their exams are not disadvantaged.

“HMC commissioned its own publicly available, independent report from CEM to ensure clarity and transparency. We welcome the fact that DfE also commissioned its own research.

“Both the DfE and the CEM research show a complex, mixed picture which is confusing for parents and schools to understand. Our research shows variation in grading depending on the analysis, dataset, subject, year of comparison and exam body.  This underlines the fact that there is no infallible system of grading and exact parity can never be achieved between different syllabuses, assessment approaches, exam boards, subjects and different groups of pupils.

“One finding from the CEM report is that there seems to have been a small difference in the grading of qualifications in English in the past. In some cases, these differences have already been identified and dealt with as part of the normal comparisons which exam boards carry out between dozens of qualifications.  We are pleased to see that exam boards are promising all possible action to ensure this will not reoccur.  

“We must remember that grading is not, in any case, particularly reliable, according to Ofqual. Any differences identified here are likely to be swamped by the fact that grading in English is only 61% reliable.

“Hence, for the sake of fairness and the wellbeing of current pupils, we must keep this in proportion and prevent children in any school being used as political weapons by those who dislike independent education and want election advantage.

“Parents should be reassured. University leaders have told us they typically deal with over 70 different qualifications at 16+ from 120 countries and the sorts of small differences outlined in these reports should not lead to an undervaluing of International GCSEs.

“It’s important to realise that most independently-educated children already take the reformed GCSEs and now that these new GCSE qualifications have settled down we would anticipate more HMC schools will consider adopting the reformed GCSEs offered in England.”

[i] Education Committee: Oral evidence: Accountability Hearings, HC 341; Tuesday 12 March 2019


Click here to view the HMC Report into the comparability of GCSE and IGCSE examinations.