Michael Gove’s GCSE Proposals

What initial conclusions about the future of GCSE exams can we draw from the mountain of documents which Michael Gove and the Department for Education released last week? And who will the winners and losers be if these proposals come to pass in their current form?

There is no doubt that the new exams will be harder and more “academic”. If not a return to the degree of difficulty posed by the old O-level exams, these new outline specifications match the difficulty and depth of the current IGCSE (International GCSE) specifications set by Edexcel and the Cambridge board. The message seems to have been: take the best of the current IGCSE specs and call it a GCSE instead.

The subject advisers seem to have taken this brief quite literally in most of the core subjects. It is perhaps most clearly seen in Mathematics, a subject in which the IGCSE specifications already require a number of skills that have been beyond the scope of the GCSE Maths syllabuses for 25 years but which are fundamental to AS level Maths. These include function notation, kinematic problems, set notation, rates of change and Venn diagrams, to name but a small sample of topics. There they are in the new drafts in bold print. This is IGCSE Maths by another name.

Most topics are not in bold print, implying that the boundary between what is now the GCSE Foundation and the current GCSE Higher levels is set to shift. Vectors, formerly to be found in the GCSE Higher level requirements, appear in plain text here, including the multiplication of vectors by a scalar. Some maths teachers may need to go on a refresher course to master the required skills!

Similar principles underlie the Science draft. Not only will the individual specifications require considerably more depth of study, as they do in today’s IGCSEs, but the Combined Science qualification will be the equivalent of two GCSEs, not one, just as it is today with IGCSE Science but not GCSE Science. The simple principle behind GCSE Science is to take one-third of the Biology specification, one-third of the Chemistry and one-third of the Physics, while IGCSE takes two-thirds of each of the respective individual subject specifications. The new proposals unashamedly mimic the IGCSE formula.

If this means that all candidates will now face a choice between tackling the new Double Science GCSE or leaving school without any formal recognition of their achievements in the sciences, there will be huge numbers of schoolchildren who fall in the latter category. While the old “everybody passes” philosophy of GCSE had its disadvantages, do we really want to stigmatise a whole generation as incapable of taking and passing the “simplest” of the new science specifications?


Children who are educated at home are unfairly denied access to examinations, according to a report in today’s Daily Telegraph.

This is not really a new story. Some home-schooled candidates have always found it time-consuming and awkward to locate suitable exam centres to take their exams for GCSE or A-level. But the Commons Education Committee has now said that it is “not reasonable” that some young people are struggling to sit national tests. It calls for a duty to be placed on councils to provide access to examination centres.  It also asks for examinaton fees to be met from public funds. We are happy to endorse all those proposals!

As Graham Stuart, the Committee’s Chairman, says: “Everyone else gets to take GCSEs and home-educated children should do so [for free] as well.”

These are welcome sentiments and time will tell whether they lead to genuine change. But they ignore the more fundamental problems of GCSE examination entry for the home-schooled, namely the need for all candidates to produce controlled assessments (coursework) in most of the main subjects, including English, History, Geography, languages and all the science subjects. Controlled assessment (as the government has defined it) is not possible for home-learners on distance learning programmes like the ones we offer, so, whether the costs are met or not, our students simply cannot take GCSE exams in these subjects.

Four years ago, Oxford Home Schooling fought hard to preserve GCSEs which were genuinely accessible to home learners, but the government rejected all our pleas. As a result, most of our students now take International GCSEs (IGCSEs) rather than GCSEs, an equally valid alternative but confusing for many families. And now those IGCSEs must call themselves “certificates”, not GCSEs, which also leads to marginalisation and confusion.

There are moves afoot to re-introduce exams (at age 16) which do not require controlled assessment, possibly based on the current IGCSEs, and such a development would be welcome news to thousands of home learners and their families.

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.



The Daily Telegraph’s front page story today carries the lurid headline: Cheating the System: how examiners tip off teachers. Parents and students are right to be worried that some teachers and their students are getting a head start.

Michael Gove has ordered an immediate enquiry but the government must take its fair share of the blame for the current mess because the exam boards are, and always have been, agents of government education policy.

In a statement issued last night (7 Dec 2011), the Education Secretary said: “Our exams system needs fundamental reform. The revelations confirm that the current system is discredited.

“I have asked Glenys Stacey [the chief executive of Ofqual] to investigate the specific concerns identified by the Telegraph, to examine every aspect of the exam boards’ conduct which gives rise to concern and to report back to me within two weeks with her conclusions and recommendations for further action.”

I have been to seminars conducted by Senior Examiners and there is no doubt that they transform teachers’ understanding of how exams and coursework are marked, so any teachers who do not attend such training sessions on a regular basis are in danger of putting their pupils at a significant disdvantage. But I have not encountered the kind of specific abuse cited by the Telegraph in which examiners advise teachers which topics are (or are not) going to turn up on specific exam papers.

The pressure is on examiners to provide “value for money” at such seminars and the more a teacher (or school) has paid, the greater the pressure on the board and the seminar-leader to go a little bit too far in terms of the advice they give. If teachers are paying as much as £230 a day as the Telegraph claims, the pressure is even greater.  If such presentations were widely publicised, free, and open to all (not just teachers at registered exam centres), it would help to ensure a level playing field for all concerned. Or the whole concept of such seminars could be scrapped and the exam boards could focus instead on dissiminating the necessary information and guidance through open-access websites rather than in one-to-one or face-to-face situations.

The exam boards will argue, with considerable justification, that such guidance is undoubtedly necessary because of the nature of exam-marking these days. Examiners have no flexibility at all in the marks they can offer, even in “fuzzy” subjects like English literature. There are no marks available for flair, initiative, insight or imagination, nor is wider reading in the subject effectively rewarded. The marks are awarded accoding to narrowly-defined and quasi-objective “assessment objectives”. A student’s chances are entirely linked to their teacher’s understanding of what those AOs are, and how to fulfil them. This is no simple matter, hence the seminar industry which the Telegraph has rightly scrutinised.

Alas, it is unlikely that we can now turn back the tide to a less legalistic age where examiners are trusted to judge the underlying understanding and communication skills of candidates rather than tick a series of boxes. But it will will be interesting to see what the government’s panic-driven enquiry throws up.


The government has recently announced that there will be a number of changes to the GCSE system, affecting examinations in 2014 and later years.  What is going on?

The main change is that it will no longer be possible to sit GCSEs, module by module, over a series of exam sittings. This is called “unitisation”.  This will make a big difference to how subjects are taught in schools. At the moment, it s possible to master one part of a specification, take an examination in that, and then move on to the next part.  As a relatively small amount of information (or skills) need to be learnt at any given moment, the exam performance is inevitably going to be better – at least for those students and schools who “play the system” effectively. And if a grade for a particular module proves to be unsatisfactory, there is the option to re-take it at the next exam sitting. The final result is almost bound to be impressive.

That situation put distance learners and home-schoolers at a big disadvantage.  Most distance learners are only in a position to take the exam once, at the end, so they need to master the entire specification at a single moment in time. This has put them at a big disadvantage, competitively, with school-based students.  The new system will be fairer to all the different types of candidates – it should be as close to a level playing field as we can get.

The government has also promised that marks will be awarded for good spelling, punctuation and other aspects of correct English.  Most will agree that such skills are an important part of a rounded education and so this development is to be applauded.

The GCSE specifications are being reviewed by the examination boards in the light of these new guidelines and there is still time for some more fundamental changes to be made. Will a green light be given to the establishment of GCSE specifications which do not entail coursework and controlled assessment? Already there are some subjects like Maths, Psychology and Law, where no coursework is required and assessment if by final exam only – will that opportunity be extended to a range of other subjects, such as English, History and Geography where the GCSE specifications have to include coursework?

We would warmly welcome the establishment of such non-coursework GCSEs across the subject range because, again, this would eliminate one of the big disadvantages that distance learners and home schoolers currently suffer in certain subjects. Their coursework is marked by external examiners who (history has shown) do not mark coursework as generously as the teachers within schools who are assessing their own pupils.

The most ambitious schools have shown what they think of the current coursework arrangements by phasing in IGCSE exams as a replacement for GCSEs. IGCSEs (or Certificates as they are now called in the UK) are seen in certain cases as a fairer test of academic ability and potential. It is important that GCSEs should be seen as offering the same intellectual rigour.  With the move away from modular assessment, there is the opportunity for other significant advances in the testing of our 16-year-olds.

With the new school year approaching one of our home schooling tutors explores the decision to home educate. Oxford Home Schooling offers a range of home education courses from Key Stage 3, to GCSE and IGCSE, to A Level.

Home Schooling

Well I’ve just got back from my holidays, not exactly bronzed and beautiful, but definitely relaxed and de-stressed. I find this is often a good time of the year to discuss future plans with my nearest and dearest and for those of you who have been thinking that home education might be an option for your children, now is a good time to have in-depth honest discussions of the pros and cons. Sometimes the worst time to discuss these sorts of issues is at the end of the school term when everyone is stressed and upset.

A lovely family holiday which has put everyone into a happy frame of mind is a good basis for discussing whether returning to school really is the best way forward and I do think this needs to be a discussion that the whole family takes part in, brothers and sisters as well – they can often give a real insight into the world of education today. Home education is also a real group effort; it involves a commitment on the part of everyone in the immediate family to play their part in helping the young person involved come to terms with the dedication, self motivation and commitment needed to make this work.

Once a decision in principle has been made then it’s time to get more information, from Local Authorities, firms like Oxford Open Learning, and organisations like Education Otherwise – they can give the practical advice that’s essential to help you see whether this is going to be the best option for your child. We all want to help – take all the advice you can get to help you make an informed decision that is in the best interests of the person who really matters, your child.

Anne Thomas


If you’re interested in home educating then visit the Oxford Home Schooling website or contact a Student Adviser for more information.

Results days are coming up next month for those taking A Level, GCSE and IGCSE exams. A Level results day is Thursday 18 August – GCSE and IGCSE results come out on Thursday 25 August.

Examination results day is always exciting, and often it can be a day of great celebration. However, for a few candidates there can be disappointment and in some cases, justified confusion. If you are an Oxford Home Schooling student, then your Student Adviser can provide reassurance and help.

Private Candidates

External or Private Candidates are particularly vulnerable on results day as they are usually “on their own”, without the back-up of an exam officer and a set of teachers who know them well and can offer advice.  Also, exam officers are frantically busy with their own students at this time and may not be happy to explain things to someone who is not one of their own students.

If you are a Private Candidate, then unlike pupils in school, you will not already know your coursework mark and it will not be identified separately on your “Candidate Statement of Provisional Results”, otherwise known as your results slip. All you will see on results day is the overall grade that you have been awarded. This can be frustrating and confusing, particularly if you have not done as well as you expected. It is easy to become annoyed and frustrated, but there are things that you can do to gather more information.

What can you do?

Always look at the results slip carefully, since for Private Candidates, a common cause of a lower than expected grade is an administrative error at the exam board which means that your coursework mark may not have been included in your grade. If you see the hash symbol “#” next to the grade it means that part of your mark is missing. This is usually the coursework and (as long as you did your coursework and submitted it correctly) this can easily be rectified. You just need to calmly show your exam officer your results slip and explain that there is a problem indicated. If you are an Oxford Open Learning student, then your Student Adviser will also provide reassurance and help.

If there is not a hash symbol then unfortunately the chances are that you really did not do as well as you expected. In this case you need to stay calm and consider your options in consultation with other people, especially your tutor and/or Student Adviser. Please remain polite and always remember that it is not the exam officer’s fault, even though you may want to take your immediate frustration out on someone.

For most students everything goes well and results day is a great relief.  If it doesn’t then stay calm, there are people to turn to even though your exam officer may be very busy.

Good luck!

Jenny Booth

Exams Officer

Oxford Home Schooling

sculptural relief by H.H. Armstead of 'Literature' in portland stone, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, Whitehall, London

H.H. Armstead, 'Literature'

Oxford Home Schooling is pleased to announce that we now have an exciting new course for IGCSE English Literature.

The new course is designed to match Issue 2 of the Edexcel 4ET0 specification for examinations in June 2012 and later years.

Candidates are required to sit two written examinations, one on prose and drama and one on unseen texts and the Edexcel poetry anthology. There is no coursework.  The specification is designed as ideal preparation for A-level English Literature study.

The selected texts for detailed study are Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet and Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men.  For the poetry paper, Edexcel has produced an anthology of sixteen poems including a number of popular favourites like Kipling’s ‘If’, Blake’s ‘Tyger’ and Dylan Thomas’s ‘Do not go gentle into that good night’, and a range of international poets including Alice Walker and Gabriel Okara. (To access the anthology you will need to select ‘Teacher Resource Materials’ in the anthology link above.)  The OHS course covers all sixteen poems in considerable detail. There is also a set of five worksheets to practice answering questions on unseen prose fiction and poetry texts.

As well as the four modules on the two set texts, the poetry anthology and the unseen texts, there are also two introductory modules, one on literary analysis and one on essay technique. The Edexcel requirements are a little more “academic” than the equivalent GCSE, but our course aims to make the study of English Literature lively and engaging for students of all abilities.

English Literature IGCSE forms an ideal complement to study of the main English IGCSE course or as part of a full range of IGCSE studies.


For the home-educated and distance learners in general, 2011 is the last year in which it is possible to stake a “standard” GCSE in English Literature. From 2012, GCSE students are required to undertake a controlled assessment which is not practicable unless you are in a supervised classroom. So IGCSE is the only viable choice in this and and a number of other subjects.  But there are plenty of IGCSE exam centres up and down the country so it is relatively straightforward to enter the exams, especially with no coursework involved.

IGCSE qualifications are accepted as at least the equivalent of GCSEs in all sixth form colleges, FE colleges, universities and other HE institutions.

If you are looking to study IGCSE English Literature outside the UK, there is no need to visit the UK to sit your exams.  With exam centres world-wide, Edexcel IGCSE is the obvious choice for international candidates.  Visit Edexcel International to find your nearest exam centre.

If you are interested in studying this or other IGCSE programmes with Oxford Home Schooling, please contact one of our Student Advisers today.

Today’s Guardian includes the headline: ‘International GCSE offer rejected by the majority of state schools’.  Jessica Shepherd’s report notes that only 16 state schools have signed up to teach IGCSEs from this autumn despite the fact that they are now free to do so (after the announcement in June by the schools minister, Nick Gibb).

The report is midsleading in a  number of ways.  Only 16 have told the Cambridge board (CIE) that they will be offering the exams but Cambridge is not the only board offering IGCSE. Edexcel has designed a set of IGCSE specfications which are intended to be better suited to the needs of UK state schools.  It is also rather too early to tell how many schools will offer IGCSE this autumn as there is no requirement to notify a board in advance and many are still making plans.

But the Guardian does not make the obvious point. State schools are in no position to offer IGCSE programmes because those programmes are not funded. Only when IGCSE courses are funded at the same level as GCSE courses will we see a large scale shift away from GCSE and towards IGCSE. The government has not yet told us whether (or when) IGCSE programmes will be funded. Until that happens, IGCSE will remain the preserve of the private sector. But the very fact that so many private schools intend to offer IGCSE this year is clear evidence that IGCSEs are seen as a better and more demanding preparation for A-levels and university courses.

Martin Ward, deputy general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, has said that the low figure shows state school teachers have “clearly decided that there is no virtue in their pupils taking IGCSEs”. This is complete nonsense and he knows it. There are some schools where the teachers are aware of the IGCSE option who have decided that it would be too tough for most of their pupils and that it represents a risk to their GCSE rankings, but most have not considered IGCSE at all because of the absence of funding.  A party divide has opened up on this issue and it is clear that the ASCL is toeing the Labour Party line.

But there are much wider issues at stake here. Should we compel state schools to deliver a National Curriculum which is carefully controlled by the government? Or should we trust exam boards and universities to set the exams that students, schools and universities want? IGCSEs are currently unregulated but there is no doubt that they are harder than GCSEs. If they become state-regulated, will exam boards start competing (as they have done with GCSE) to make them ever easier in order  to attract a higher proportion of state schools? It may be some time before all these issues are satisfactorily settled.

Dr Nicholas Smith,

Principal, Oxford Home Schooling

AS levels will not be scrapped. The sensationalised headlines do not reflect the proposals that have currently been aired by Michael Gove, the new Education Secretary.

What Gove is suggesting is an alternative qualification for the more academic, university-bound student. Indeed, as he says, such an alternative already exists, in the form of the Cambridge pre-U, although it is available only in a small number of subjects and in a very small number of state schools. It is an invitation to other university-led institutions to put together rival qualifications, just as there are a number of rival boards for GCSE.

It is a broad hint that in the fullness of time, such alternative qualifications will not only be allowable in state schools but also funded in the same way as A-levels.  Until funding is in place, the take-up and public awareness of such qualifications will remain limited.

We have already seen the same government strategy applied to GCSE-level qualifications where it has already been announced that the IGCSE qualifications shunned by the last government will now be acceptable in state schools. IGCSEs, e.g. those set by Edexcel, will appeal to many schools because of their academic rigour and because they do not entail coursework. Coursework is very fiddly to administer and it is believed that coursework favours girls rather than boys so boys-only schools will be keen to adopt specifications that do not entail coursework.

Has the modularisation of A-levels also favoured girls and enabled them to overtake boys in terms of A-level achievement? While no alternatives exist, it is difficult to evaluate this theory. A bigger problem with modularisation has been the opportunity to re-take modules in order to get a better result. To many, a Grade C achieved at the third attempt is not really worth as much as a Grade C achieved after a single year of study, without any retakes, but there is no obvious mechanism to differentiate between the two. Certainly, universities would find it much easier to distinguish between candidates if they have all taken exams once only at the end of the course.

To many, IGCSEs are O-levels by another name and the new qualification proposed by Gove is a return to the old A-level system. Many educationalists see this as elitist and retrogressive but others will argue that after two decades of “dumbing down” in school qualifications, in order to keep students of widely varying ability in school to the age of 18, it is about time, we gave more able students the chance to prepare for university in a way that the universities themselves want.

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