Much has been written in the press in recent weeks about the equivalence or otherwise of qualifications bearing the name ‘GCSE’. The discussion has been prompted following reports on social media that pupils in England are finding the new reformed 9 – 1 GCSEs very tough going. There have been claims the new exams are so hard that only 200 students will secure the top 9 grade in all their subjects, and that many candidates have been scarred by the new qualifications, leaving exam halls shaking and in tears. Pass marks for the new GCSEs are rumoured to be very low. In contrast, it is suggested that the international IGCSE, (also moving to a 9 – 1 grading scale in the UK) sat by many pupils in independent schools is much ‘easier’.
And because it is supposedly ‘easier’ to get top grades in IGCSE papers, some commentators are arguing that already ‘advantaged’ independent school pupils will be at a ‘further advantage’ in the university applications process unless IGCSE grades are given a reduced weighting, compared to reformed GCSEs which state school pupils have to sit.
So exam reform concerns are mixing with suspicions of independent school bias to create a potent media story. But strip away the political froth and two clear points emerge.
Firstly exam grading is a very technical process and the statistical complexities involved are not readily accessible to the average person in the street or journalists looking for a juicy headline. In summary to ensure qualifications equivalence exam boards need lots of data to make statistically valid comparisons between boards and papers. At present this data does not exist, because not enough candidates have sat reformed GCSEs and new 9 – 1 IGCSEs for valid comparisons to be made (the results in August 2018 will provide the first opportunity to do so).
Much of the ‘GCSE is harder than IGCSE’ debate is focussed on perceived paper difficulty, but this is not the same as grading standards. Very tough papers whether in GCSE or IGCSE will have lower grade thresholds, for example the new GCSE 9 -1 Edexcel maths had a grade 9 boundary that was 6% lower than the A* boundary the previous year, despite 9 being a higher grade than A*. The same proportion of candidates on tougher and easier papers can get the same grades but with different marks. The ‘difficulty’ of a paper can only be truly judged in relation to the grade boundaries set. Moreover, paper toughness is not necessarily an attribute as it can demoralise candidates putting them off further learning, whilst a concentration of low marks can make it very difficult to accurately grade candidates at the lower end of the mark distribution.
The second point is that there is no such thing as exact qualification equivalence. Education and exams are matters for the devolved governments that make up the UK. Scotland has always had its separate system of standard and higher grade exams, but with the latest GCSE reforms, Wales and Northern Ireland have diverged from each other and England. So whilst England has linear only GCSE exams graded from 9-1, Wales has retained some modularity and an A*- G GCSE grading system. Northern Ireland meanwhile is operating revised GCSE A* – G grades, different to Wales, with a new C* grade. Even before the current IGCSE v GCSE debate began, GCSE was not a uniform qualification with uniform grades.
But it is even more complex than this. In England there are three exam boards AQA, OCR and Edexcel all offering different 9 – 1 GCSE qualifications and papers. Whilst all 3 boards are overseen by the English regulator Ofqual, inevitably three different boards with many different papers will lead to some variation in standards. Ofqual recognise this and have checking measures in place to ensure broad equivalence.
Uniformity of standards could only be achieved by all pupils in all schools sitting exactly the same papers in each and every subject. But even this would require one further significant change to ensure standards equivalence, and that would be the removal of all longer answer questions which whilst assessing important skills such as evaluation and communication are subjective to mark. And we know from exam board practice that there is an acceptable range of marks for these subjective questions such that acceptably harsh and acceptably generous markers may give the same answer two different marks but within overall tolerances that lead to two different grades. The only way to get total equivalence of qualifications is therefore to adopt a “one board, one paper, short answers only” approach to qualifications. Removing choice and longer answers from the exam system is a very high price to pay for equivalence, and in my opinion not worth it (especially as any equivalence would be limited to England).
Instead what we need is what we have, a system of broad equivalences which give teachers and pupils choices. Qualifications are not just exams, they are more importantly learning frameworks. And no single qualification is best for all students in all subjects. Teachers need the professional freedom to select the qualification that works best for their students in their schools as this will maximise learning which is surely the main purpose of education. At the Perse heads of department are free to make these choices on behalf of their pupils and in some subjects they have opted for reformed GCSEs, in others for reformed IGCSE. In all cases it is not because they want to game the system for grade advantage but because they want to maximise productive learning and understanding and ensure pupils are well prepared for the next stage in their education. So in computer science we have opted for IGCSE because algorithmic problems, which lie at the heart of the subject, are more rigorously assessed in IGCE than in the GCSE where a poorly constructed coursework module has left Ofqual no option but to remove a major part of the course from consideration until at least 2020. In English we have gone with IGCSE too as it requires more extended thinking and evaluation (important skills) but less rote learning of quotes (an increasingly redundant skill in a search engine world) than GCSE. But in geography we have opted for GCSE because of the extensive and detailed coverage of physical and human geographies together with geographic skills.
The current GCSE v IGCSE debate is shallow and partial. What we need is a more sophisticated understanding of qualifications ‘equivalence’ which maintains qualification choice, and gives teachers some professional independence to act in the best educational interests of their students, to maximise productive learning and understanding. The Secretary of State for Education cannot possibly know what is best for every child in every situation and a state qualifications monopoly should be resisted. At the same time, exam boards must play their part by communicating clearly and openly the objective measures they take to ensure that the various different forms of GCSE are broadly equivalent.
We owe it to hard working exam candidates to ensure they have both the benefits of choice whilst also the certainty of knowing that the grades they achieve are bona fide and part of a trusted exams system.