Exam apartheid

Trevor Fisher's picture

Over this summer, a new division between state and private schools threatens to open up. There are already too many, but exam reform at 16 plus may see the parting of the ways. For once it is not just the consequence of having more money in a time of cutbacks, but government policy aimed at creating a new exam system. The private schools are increasingly likely to reject the Gove agenda and head for the International GCSE (IGCSE) leaving the allegedly superior Goveite GCSE to sink or swim.

It is however not inevitable that this split will take place, as Gove placed IGCSE and GCSE on the same footing and despite recent changes this is still the case. On 5th May the TES published an article I wrote pointing out the problems, and this can be found here.

As it is clear that state schools doing GCSE and private schools doing IGCSE, which they are doing in larger and larger numbers would create educational apartheid, it is important that teachers in the state sector realise they can still do the IGCSE. The Gove reform has not yet been repealed. The new IGCSEs in maths and English have been approved by OFQUAL and unless there is a suprising change of policy by the DfE are still going to be funded. New IGCSEs, with the 9-1 grading system, and the old IGCSEs while they exist, can still be done in state schools.

The problem is performance tables. As media reported in January without understanding the implications, Nick Gibb banned IGCSE from the performance tables, so schools like Westminster and St Paul's had no successes. This did not matter to them. It mattered to the state schools which got reported by media as having no successes as the tables reported 0% pass rates. The danger is that this will make teachers in state schools do the GCSE even if they think IGCSE is better for their pupils.

Teachers need to opt for the courses that are best for their pupils, whether IGCSE or GCSE. For the maths and English courses starting in September, approved and funded at IGCSE, the question of whether they will be in performance tables in January 2018 is irrelevant. The courses which will be first examined in Summer 2017 will count for entrance into sixth form and university, and IGCSE will be just as relevant as GCSE. In fact the Gibb edict could change and performance tables include IGCSE, though it would appear to be unlikely the new Tory government will do this unless under intense pressure from outside.

Whether this will happen is impossible to tell. But it is clear that if state schools opt for GCSE maths and English this summer, and private schools opt for IGCSE, we have the beginning of educational apartheid via exams. This danger must be addressed by teachers in the coming months.

Trevor Fisher12 05 15
Share on Twitter Share on Facebook

Be notified by email of each new post.


Michele -Lowe's picture
Thu, 14/05/2015 - 10:22

I'll be candid here. I'm not entirely sure what the difference is between IGCSE and GCSE. Is the IGCSE considered less intellectually rigorous than the GCSE?
Perhaps that's not the point. The fact that there is a watershed opening up is the real problem. From my perspective, with kids in the Welsh schooling system, the prospect of losing parity between the qualifications at 16 is worrying. I can foresee claim and counter claim over the worth - or otherwise - of kids' qualifications. When it comes to training, further education and higher education courses, this will disadvantage kids who by accident of geography have the 'wrong' qualification.

mistemina's picture
Thu, 14/05/2015 - 10:56

Forgive my ignorance, is IGCSE in fact a more rigorous and more difficult examination than GCSE?

Janet Downs's picture
Thu, 14/05/2015 - 11:32

Michele - IGCSEs are GCSEs intended for the international market. The content is slightly different to reflect the fact that they're intended for pupils living abroad. However, there's no reason why pupils in the UK can't take them. Independent schools have increasingly been doing so since before the 2010 election claiming they were more rigorous. Some teachers, however, think IGCSEs are in fact easier. Exam boards, however, say there's no difference between the two types.

A cynic might say independent schools turned to IGCSEs because state schools were doing well in the GCSE stakes. These schools needed to persuade parents to keep on paying fees rather than send their children to state schools which did just as well so turned to IGCSEs which state schools couldn't take at the time.

The 2010 Tory manifesto said state schools would be allowed to take IGCSEs to create a level playing field between state and private schools. IGCSEs would also count in league tables. This promise was kept.

Now it's been decided IGCSEs will not count in league tables. As Trevor says, this is probably because state schools would turn to the more stable IGCSEs than enter pupils for new, untrialled and unevaluated 'Gove' GCSEs. Independent schools won't care - parents won't withdraw children from private schools because they've scored 0% in School Performance Tables. These will increasingly be seen as something used to judge state schools and nothing to do with private ones which, no doubt, will claim their exams are 'harder' than the state equivalents.

As Trevor said: examination apartheid.

Janet Downs's picture
Thu, 14/05/2015 - 11:35

John - IGCSEs and GCSEs are equivalent. Private schools said they turned to IGCSEs because they were 'harder' and 'stretched' their pupils (sooooo much brighter than state kids). However, in 2013, some teachers claimed IGCSE was in fact easier.

mistemina's picture
Thu, 14/05/2015 - 12:15

Michele, I understand that’s not the point. The real problem is the imminent apartheid.

mistemina's picture
Thu, 14/05/2015 - 12:17

Thank you.
Will it surprise you to know that the highest local LA Office last year claimed IGCSE were harder!

Janet Downs's picture
Thu, 14/05/2015 - 12:52

John - a lot of myths surround IGCSE. They're claimed to be more 'rigorous' by schools that promote them as a Unique Selling Point (USP) or 'easier' (sometimes by teachers who've taught both).

The truth is probably somewhere in-between. The exam board say they're equivalent. If there's any doubt, Ofqual should investigate (if it's not to busy sorting out Gove's GCSEs).

The one thing in the favour of IGCSEs in the present climate is they are relatively unchanged and teachers are experienced in teaching them. The new Gove GCSEs, on the other hand, have been rushed through without trials or evaluation. Teachers have had little time to be trained and devise new teaching schemes. And the Gove GCSEs which are first coming on stream will be taught from September.

It's a farce. The rest of the developed world, where few exams are taken at 16 and if they are they're fewer and only used to decide 16+ progression, must be sniggering that England's exam system, once the envy of the world, is backward-looking and chaotic. Worse, it puts unnecessary stress on our children and young people.

Michael Pyke's picture
Thu, 14/05/2015 - 19:18

Janet is right: private schools don't do IGCSE because of its inherent merits but in order to differentiate themselves from the state sector. The more it becomes apparent that the private sector doesn't, as a whole, offer better education than the state, the more important differentiation becomes. What the private sector is really selling is social exclusivity and the reinforcement of socio-economic advantage. Parents don't want to admit that this is what they're really buying and IGCSE serves as a convenient fig leaf.

Michele -Lowe's picture
Thu, 14/05/2015 - 22:51

Thanks Janet for the outlining of the situation. The constant change and reform almost seem to be a tactic. Except that permanent innovation is probably just an ingrained bad habit. Creates the impression that something is being done 'because state education is so self-evidently bad'.

Janet's right about the European approach being saner. My teenage daughter spent a week at Easter in France at a languages school mixing with French, German and British kids. They had a chance to compare notes and the impression she came away with was that the Germans and French (who were 17 years of age) didn't feel the same levels of anxiety over their exams. Ironically, whilst she went to improve her French and worked hard during the week, it turned out to be relaxing to socialise with unstressed teenagers - particularly German ones whose command of English is a credit to their education system.

Now she's back in the feverish world of AS exams. Her younger sister is in the first year of GCSE exams. My nieces in Essex are in the same boat and no quick end in sight.

mistemina's picture
Fri, 15/05/2015 - 09:42

''The constant change and reform almost seem to be a tactic...................Creates the impression that something is being done 'because state education is so self-evidently bad'. ''
This appears to be a universal. Our local LA has made an art form out of this tactic. We have had 30 yeas of the largest Gap in the UK. There has been a lot of hand wringing in public. Yet no improvements.
The latest wiz is that they have hived off School Improvements to a 'Charity'.
Guess what, the charity turns over £17m (they tell us) but nothing has been done and therefore no reduction in the Gap.

mistemina's picture
Fri, 15/05/2015 - 15:56

Let me re-phrase, I am committed to reducing inequality in our education system'

Roger, I have to use a measure to qualify/verify any statement I utter. Unfortunately my LA measures its achievement record via the annual Standards Report.
Which is measured in terms of the Gap.

Flawed as the use of the word Gap is, this is the only measure that is published.

Roger Titcombe's picture
Fri, 15/05/2015 - 16:27

John - I understand that, but they are wrong. There is no gap. Children perform according to their CATs (general intelligence ) scores. This relationship is not much affected by social deprivation, The only way this is revealed is if you have the CATs scores as you have in Hackney. My study of Mossbourne Academy in 'Learning Matters' shows that this is true. It can be shown to be true everywhere there is universal CATs testing.

The problem that is obscured by this misunderstanding is low average CATs scores in areas of social deprivation. Cramming kids for SATs and GCSEs to hit floor targets makes kids from such backgrounds even dimmer. It is the tragedy of the English education system. Developmental teaching can result in gains in general intelligence. Genuine higher attainment (rather than inflated exam results) will flow automatically from that.

Part 5 of 'Learning Matters' describes examples of how that can be achieved. It is not just me making this argument. See Maurice Holt and others here.


Michael Pyke's picture
Tue, 19/05/2015 - 15:45

Roger, what, would you say, is the mechanism that links low CATs scores with socio-economic deprivation?

Roger Titcombe's picture
Sun, 24/05/2015 - 15:02

Michael - That is not the link that I make. The link is between low mean CATs scores and the relative affluence of particular local communities. This is an important distinction. I argue in Learning Matters that children at all developmental stages can have their cognitive ability significantly raised through the right sort of curriculum/teaching methods that should be provided in a good comprehensive school.

The key educational concept is 'individual personal development', not maximising outcome test scores to meet high stakes (for schools and teachers) targets.

The tragedy is that in our marketised education system the very children most in need of cognitively developmental curriculum are those that are most likely to be denied access to it. There in no incentive for a school to invest in developing anything that does not provide a quick payback in terms of L4+SATs and/or GCSE C grades

It a matter of demographic drift linked to aspiration and meritocratic social mobility.

This is how I put it in Section 4.8 of 'Learning Matters'.

4.8 Why do areas of poor housing produce a lower proportion of brighter children?

This association is very hard for many on the political left to accept, often resulting in a ‘shoot the messenger’ response. Therefore the explanation has to be clearly set out.
There are many reasons on a variety of levels, none of which necessarily require any resort to explanations based on genetic inheritance.

We can start with the long established pattern that children’s success at school is strongly linked to parental academic qualifications. If we make the further reasonable assumption that parents with better qualifications tend to have better jobs with higher pay and that parents that can afford it tend to move to more ‘up market’ areas of housing then we have a pretty convincing explanation.

A more academic argument is made by Peter Saunders (1.3) in his Civitas book, Social Mobility Myths (June 2010).

Far from being housing of last resort, living in a well-built council house in a pleasant suburb was a perfectly sensible lifestyle choice before the massive house price inflation caused by Margaret Thatcher’s housing policies, later enthusiastically taken up by New Labour, made it an economic necessity for aspiring families to ‘get onto the housing ladder’ (1.4).

Poor mean cognitive ability postcodes are not however monopolised by council housing. In many northern towns the poorest housing is increasingly not council houses but privately rented (and sometimes even privately owned) Victorian terraces. Such privately rented housing was widely condemned in the 1960s as Rachmanism after the notoriously exploitive private landlord whose exposure led to rent controls that have long since been abolished.

Comprehensive education had always assumed neighbourhood schools, and enlightened LAs like the former Inner London Education Authority (ILEA) well understood the link between cognitive ability, social class and areas of deprivation. School catchment areas were devised so as to make its schools as socially heterogeneous as possible. These powers were removed by the 1988 Education Act.

There is a further illustration by way of personal anecdote in Section C 1.4 in 'Learning Matters'.

You can read this on my website here


Barry Wise's picture
Fri, 22/05/2015 - 16:53


Poor perinatal nutrition?

Cultural factors such as amount/style of talk by parents in early childhood?

Probably a combination of these and others.

Add new comment

Already a member? Click here to log in before you comment. Or register with us.