The truth about IGCSE

I have written before about the frustration I feel at the independent school sector being used as the go-to public enemy for all social ills during recent times. In many ways we are getting used to it. However, even I was surprised at the nature of this weekend’s ‘scoop’ style headlines, in which politicians, journalists and even the TES claimed with glee to have ‘revealed’ the terrible secret of us having the option to choose ‘easier’ IGCSEs which were, in turn, going to give our pupils an advantage with universities. You would think there might be more urgent things to write about but, once again, we were coming out as a soft, unpopular target for everyone to unite against. Perhaps less divisive than global warming or the Brexit crisis?

As lots of my colleagues and I have pointed out on social media, the number of incorrect assumptions in these articles is quite staggering. The case that IGCSEs are easier than GCSEs remains unproven. Differences vary from subject to subject and, ironically, most independent schools chose them years ago precisely because they were perceived as more rigorous and better preparation for A level. They have also stuck with them for years, sometimes in the face of marks seeming to be worse than those at GCSE, because they felt they were better educationally. Similarly, we don’t know what, if any difference, they are going to make in terms of university places since the pupils taking the new reformed GCSEs have not yet applied to university.

However, the worst accusation of all is that we, the independent sector, are somehow ‘cheating’ the system and have deliberately set out to exploit a loop hole unfairly. I thought it might be helpful, therefore, to set out here, for my own parents and pupils as much as anyone else, how our school has conducted itself over the past few years and the rationale behind the curriculum decisions we make.

JAGS offers a range of both IGCSE and GCSE in Year 11. Last year was the first time our pupils sat the new, reformed GCSEs and we were delighted by their results. At post 16 we offer mostly A level with a handful of Pre Us. As a headteacher, I allow my heads of department to choose which course to follow since they are the experts in their subject area and I have huge respect for that. When they discuss courses with me, they are likely to mention course work, choice of set topics, oral assessments, the inclusion of practical components and how GCSE leads to A level and A level to university. They do not seek out the easiest courses, which would be educationally short-sighted, especially at GCSE which, for us, is a gateway to A level. Equally, we do not, as a leadership team, operate any school wide policy that ever considers this. When the new GCSEs came in, those subjects opting for IGCSE were largely just keeping with the status quo and carrying on with courses they knew. Given that even the regulator says that a new course takes three years to bed in, their caution is understandable. However, some heads of department, including our large and highly successful science team, liked the look of the new GCSE and took it up, gaining outstanding results this summer.

Just before I moved from my first headship to JAGS in 2015, the IGCSE story then was that the government had announced that no IGCSE results could be included in published league tables. This meant that schools like ours either had to drop IGCSE or resign ourselves to getting a ‘zero’ in measures such as percentage of pupils with a grade C or above in English. I remember, at the time, we were all quite proud to join the ‘zero club’ which included the highest achieving schools in the country, precisely because we chose what we believed to be right rather than playing the system. My understanding is that state school heads could, in theory, opt for IGCSEs if they too were able to ignore the league tables but I suspect it would take a lot of courage and governor support to do so given the measures by which they are judged.

This is one of several ways in which being independent affords me greater freedom in the running of a school than that enjoyed by my state school colleagues. This does mean that my staff non-contact time, in which they can review a curriculum and prepare for its delivery, is higher. I also suspect that my professional development budget and ability to cover lessons for teachers undertaking training for the new courses, was also better than theirs. When Michael Gove decided to reform both A level and GCSE concurrently, I wonder if the financial and human cost of such training and preparation time was taken into account? Equally, when the status of IGCSE in the league tables was reviewed, did the politicians think about how they were curtailing the academic options of state school subject experts? Clearly, we have these options because we are independent and, in some areas at least, do not have to dance to the drum of the Department for Education. If the politicians wanted to give all headteachers the same level of choice and flexibility that I enjoy, then accusations of an unfair system would be redundant and we could work together to improve education for all young people rather than perpetuate this ‘them and us’ narrative which serves only political agendas.

Sally-Anne Huang, Headmistress, JAGS

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