IGCSEs remain tried and tested in year of upheaval

Shaun FentonListen hard and you can hear the national sigh of relief. Finally, GCSE exams have finished and pupils and parents alike can congratulate themselves for getting through a particularly difficult year of change. But don’t relax too quickly. It seems there is another reason for some families to feel stressed.

Seeping into the national conversation about exams is the idea that the new GCSEs are harder than existing IGCSEs (international GCSEs) and thereby more worthwhile as a qualification. This is not only wrong but making such pronouncements when candidates were still sitting exams was unfair and undermining to children.

For a start, ICGSEs are taken by millions of students around the world, and Cambridge IGCSE is the world’s most popular international qualification for 14 to 16 year olds. It has been around for 25 years and experienced teachers – many in the independent sector – continue to choose them.

Indeed, aspects of the Government’s reform of GCSEs were inspired in the first place by the strengths of IGCSE. Here’s why.

IGCSEs have a long track record of ably preparing students for A levels and higher education. They have satisfied the criteria that I and my colleagues hold dear - qualifications which engender a love of a subject, develop good learning habits and draw out the best in candidates.  The exams allow for extra knowledge to be included and credited in the answers, thereby helping markers to differentiate the very best students and provide accurate rank ordering at the top end.

Meanwhile, the new GCSEs are brand new and so, literally, untested.  Like many heads, my school has a mix of exams with the syllabus offered by the exam boards being the main reason why a GCSE is chosen for one subject and an IGCSE for another.

In the independent sector we are lucky to have this ability to match course content to the strengths and expertise found in different subject department traditions.  We thus have sympathy with our state school colleagues who have had nearly all IGCSEs withdrawn from viable use because of the uniform way in which the government chooses to measure their performance.

First and foremost then, independent schools choose the subject qualifications their pupils sit on the intrinsic educational quality of the course content.  They are good for learning; we know that they prepare candidates well for A Level, for example.

Examining organisations such as Cambridge Assessment, (which provide both GCSEs and IGCSEs) have large research and development departments who jump through complex technical hoops to ensure that the different exams provide pupils with equivalent grades regardless of the difficulty of the paper. We rely on them to do so.

The important point is that schools are not wedded to IGCSEs because they are more likely to result in higher grades. They are not even included in league tables, so clearly this is not about showing off good results.  We offer them because they are a tried and tested success story in the lives of the young people we teach.

So many schools like Reigate Grammar continue  to value IGCSEs, For as long as public examinations are sat by the nation’s 16 year olds, it is the job of schools like mine to ensure that, in each subject, students are following programmes of study over five years - or more - that lay good foundations, can be taught in exciting ways by teachers with deep subject knowledge and enable students to advance steadily, drawing from them increasingly sophisticated levels of understanding.

I am confident that when judiciously selected, schools will find both the new GCSEs and existing IGCSEs meet this challenge of supporting pupils as they advance towards A levels, BTECs, T levels or higher apprenticeships.

Young people have a great deal to worry about so let’s not scare them further with phantom fears. Pupils and employers can continue to have faith in IGCSEs and, in the future, with the new GCSEs.

Good luck to all those now awaiting their results.


Shaun Fenton, HMC Chair Elect and Headmaster, Reigate Grammar School