Are IGCSEs tougher exams?

A report in the Sunday Times on 29 July was headlined ‘State Schools ditch GCSE for tougher exam’. The exams in question were International GCSEs, or IGCSEs, as set by Edexcel and CIE.  As the report indicated, IGCSEs are being adopted not just by private schools but by a wide range of “ordinary” state schools, dissatisfied with the current GCSE qualifications. But are IGCSEs really harder than GCSEs?

At Oxford Home Schooling, we offer a broad range of both GCSEs and IGCSEs, so we are in a good position to evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of each. In some subjects like Mathematics, we offer both and it is not difficult to compare the two specifications, point for point, to see which is harder. There is no doubt that for both Foundation and Higher level students, IGCSE Maths is more demanding. There are a number of sub-A-level topics, like calculus and matrices, which appear on the IGCSE specifications but not on the GCSE while certain skills which are designated as Higher level at GCSE (negative powers, etc) appear at Foundation for IGCSE.

It is harder to make the comparison in most other subjects because the list of topics to be covered may look similar at first glance – the real difference comes in the breadth and depth of coverage of each topic; IGCSE students are expected to have covered quite a lot more ground. I would estimate that there is typically an extra 20%-30% to learn for each IGCSE as compared with its GCSE equivalent. There is no doubt that if an IGCSE student successfully covers the whole of the topic content in the specification, he or she will be in a far stronger position, knowledge-wise, to go on to A-level.

But the GCSE providers, like AQA, would argue that coursework is a crucial part of most GCSEs, and GCSE candidates must spend a significant part of their study time planning and producing coursework. With the introduction of controlled assessment for coursework, this is now a more rigorous and fair process. As a result, they argue, it is reasonable that the topic content is thinner. Insofar as coursework encourages independent research, it too can be said to provide a reasonable preparation for A-level. But the truth is that coursework skills are a bit too similar from one subject to another, with the same set of boxes to be ticked by candidates and examiners. In too many schools, the requirement for coursework across a broad range of subjects has come at the expense of “real” subject knowledge and this is why so many schools are switching to IGCSE.

When we ask whether IGCSE exams are tougher, what many of us really want to know is whether it is harder to gain a grade C (say) in IGCSE than in GCSE. Just because there is more detail on the specification does not mean that fewer people will get a high grade. The number of candidates being awarded a grade C remains an arbitrary decision. A GCSE board might set the bar at 70% (in theory) while an IGCSE board might set it at 40%, not that this happens in practice. Because of fluctuating grade-boundaries, it is hard, or impossible, to say for sure whether you have a better chance of collecting 10 A’s (or A*’s) by sticking with GCSEs.

The take-up of IGCSEs would be much faster but for the suspicion that IGCSE candidates are not yet being given the credit they deserve, i.e. it is harder to gain a grade C in the IGCSE, yet grade Cs are still being treated equally by employers and higher education institutions.  But the evidence is very hard to evaluate in this respect, for the reasons I have suggested.

For home-schoolers and distance learners in general, there are a number of reasons why IGCSEs are not the harder proposition. The GCSE coursework system was unfairly loaded in favour of school-based candidates, so those involved in home schooling have something much closer to a level playing-field with the final exam-only IGCSEs. It is also true that the home-educated find it almost impossible to comply with the controlled assessment requirements of modern GCSEs. So, in general, it is easier (and cheaper!) to sit an IGCSE examination if you are an independent candidate.  There is no clear evidence that home learners will emerge with lower grades if they take IGCSEs and, on the other side of the coin, there is little doubt that they will actually learn more and be in stronger position to go on to A-level, etc.



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