Exams, exams, exams

Test_(student_assessment).jpegExams are an unavoidable part of all our lives. Some people thrive on them, some people hate and fear them. But they are a part of our culture of ‘testing’, along with driving tests and job interviews ( a kind of a test, surely ). For some they are the signal of the end to their career in education, be that at school, college or university. And if you’ve done well they can be a real cause for celebration! They are an accepted part of the landscape.

Exams also do more than one job. Not only do they measure your own performance but they also measure the performance of the institution. School league tables rely on results so that parents/carers can choose between schools if necessary, and these days there are even international comparisons. PISA is perhaps the best known. And, paradoxically, what PISA shows is that two of the most successful education systems in the world ( Finland and Singapore ) by these measures have completely different education systems. So which one to learn from? Our exams are also administered by specialist exam boards, which may bring some comfort. AQA in particular has good explanations of the system and highlights any changes on its website. Because there are and always will be changes.

I’ve seen proposals for change for at least half my career ( and that’s going back a bit! ). Recently there’s been a move towards more traditional approaches to teaching for exam syllabuses, for instance, and every year the grading system and results are heavily publicised and often criticised. Changes are usually proposed thereafter. The big question is, do we want more and more people to do well, or do we want to avoid ‘dumbing down’ the system and to make sure instead that only the ‘very best’ get the best results? The other usual concern is of course that as an incorrect grading can spell disaster to a career or entry to a university, are we marking the papers correctly? Doesn’t fewer successes indicate a truer meritocracy? These are all fundamental questions which have never been truly resolved to my knowledge. And then there are the alternatives. The IGCSE and the International Baccalaureate ( I. B. ) to name but two.

Continuous assessment is of course an entirely different matter. This is where a teacher/tutor who knows you well contributes some collection of marks or assessments given by him/her to a final result. That way your real effort and forms of expression are appreciated accurately and interpreted properly. But can it ever be objective enough? Teachers will say yes, but it’s yet another strand to this debate.

In any case, one of the secrets to successful study is to enjoy it. Be organised and get fit. And why not teach yourself to read differently for different purposes. Quickly and for fun in your wider reading and to broaden your mind, carefully when it comes to instructions and exam questions.
These are your opportunities and this is your time. Make the most of it!!! And of Oxford Open Learning.

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 government, via OfQual, has invited all interested parties to make comments on the proposed changes to the GCSE system. I think it is in all of our interests to make our views known, even if those views are completely ignored as they were last time around!

While the move away from modular exams is a positive development for anyone involved in home schooling there are problems afoot which will affect future students, if not those who are thinking of embarking on GCSE courses at the moment.

In my view, the proposed changes fail to address the single biggest problem with qualifications at this level – the difficulty of taking the exams for anyone outside the mainstream school system.

The rules for controlled assessment make it difficult or impossible for “irregular” students (including adult learners and the home-schooled) to enter for exams at all. Such students cannot satisfy the requirements for supervision and other aspects of “control”. In English (and other key subjects like Science, History and Geography), there are no GCSE specifications at all which dispense with the need for controlled assessment, because exam boards are not allowed to set such specifications in those subjects – I am sure they would like to!

The result is that home-schooled students are currently obliged to take IGCSE courses in those subjects, but that option will become  fraught with problems after 2014. Meanwhile, IGCSE is a title that will no longer be used in the UK where IGCSEs are being replaced with “Certificates” (as set by Edexcel and others) and in order for the Certificates to be accredited, a number of Certificate specifications, notably in English, must include coursework which itself is subject to stringent controls. In practical terms, this may well mean that examination centres will eventually be unable to allow entry to private candidates.

To take a typical example … any home-schooled child, between the ages of about 14 and 16, will expect to be able to take a GCSE-level qualification in English, Science and various other “core” subjects.  At the moment, it is possible to take an IGCSE instead, with no coursework, and so gain an equally prestigous and useful qualification.

In future, there may be no options available at all, or the ones that are left will be so fraught with controlled assessment and other logistical problems to the point where it is impossible for the private candidate to take the exams anywhere.  Do we really want to close down such options for a generation of home-schooled kids?

Several thousand home learners a year fall into this category and would be effectively excluded from the examination system.  This diverse group lacks a voice or effective representation but it is hugely unfair that it should be, in effect, excluded by this unfair one-size-fits-all policy.

There are a number of possible solutions, including the following:

  1. The government allows non-coursework GCSE specifications in subjects like English and History (just as they already do in such subjects as Maths and Psychology).
  2. The government allows non-coursework options within GCSE specifications, open to certain categories of candidate for whom controlled assessment is impossible or inappropriate.
  3. The government relaxes the controlled assessment rules so that coursework is once again practicable for home learners.
  4. The government accredits Certificates (or IGCSEs) that do not require coursework and ensures that success in such qualifications carries the same weight as success in the “regular” GCSEs, e.g. it secures access to 6th form courses and the like.

Option 4 is only a partial solution to the problem but a lot better than nothing. It is vital that one of these solutions is adopted now before the interests of many different categories of student are irreparably damaged.

Oxford Home Schooling is pleased to announce that we now have an exciting new course for IGCSE Human Biology. This follows the recent release of our new course for IGCSE English Literature.

The new course is designed to match the Edexcel 4HB0 specification for examinations in June 2011, June 2012, or later years.

Candidates are required to sit two written examinations. There is no coursework although some familiarity with experimental procedure is required. The specification is designed as ideal preparation for A-level Biology or Human Biology study.

The OOL course is divided into five modules that follow the structure of the Edexcel specification:

Module 1: Cell Processes

Module 2: Human Physiology A

Module 3: Human Physiology B

Module 4: Reproduction and Heredity

Module 5: Microorganisms, Disease and Environment

The Edexcel requirements are a little more “academic” than the equivalent GCSE but our course aims to make the study of Human Biology engaging and practical for students of all abilities.

Human Biology IGCSE may be studied on its own, alongside other Science IGCSEs or as part of a full range of IGCSE studies.


For the home-educated and distance learners in general, 2010 was the last year in which it was possible to stake a “standard” GCSE in Human Biology or Human Physiology and Health. From 2011, 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.

IGCSE test centres world-wide

If you are looking to study for IGCSE exams outside the UK, you do not need to visit the UK to sit your exams.  You can find your nearest international exam centre by visiting Edexcel International.

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

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

Michael Gove, the Education Secretary, has just announced that state schools will be able to offer IGCSEs (International GCSEs) in all subjects from September.  As he says, this will allow pupils at state secondaries to compete on a level playing field with their privately-educated peers.

At Oxford Home Schooling, we welcome this development, but it is only a first step. It provides implicit acknowledgment of the academic credibility of IGCSEs but this was rarely in doubt within universities and colleges. Yet until IGCSEs are funded on the same scale as ordinary GCSEs, no state school will, in practice, be able to take the plunge. They cannot offer courses with no funding, however superior they seem, especially when the costs of re-training staff and re-educating parents are included.

Equivalent funding needs to be granted as soon as possible. The fear for many in the state education sector is that a two-tier system will develop, like the old split between CSE and O-level, and that GCSE will become increasingly marginalised.  But the difference between GCSE and IGCSE is not just one of academic rigour;  it is also a matter of convenience and accessibility. The controlled assessment required for most new GCSEs has disenfranchised whole categories of students, including home learners and distance learners, and it is vital that a practicable alternative like IGCSE, without all the coursework baggage, is suitably recognised and validated.

John Dunford, the general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, says that IGCSEs do not meet the rigorous standards of normal GCSEs.  I know of very few disinterested educationalists who share this view. Anyone who has compared an IGCSE specification with the equivalent GCSE specification in any subject (and I have looked at many) has come to the conclusion that IGCSEs require equivalent breadth and greater depth across the topic areas. This is easiest to judge in subjects like Maths and Science where IGCSE specifications (e.g. set by Edexcel) include all the  “normal” GCSE topics, plus a range of extra topics that most state school pupils do not encounter till A-level.  My impression is that IGCSEs offer much better preparati0n for A-level and higher education.

I believe that most teachers share this view and would like to make the switch to IGCSE. The pressure will grow on the government to ensure that IGCSEs are funded on the same scale as GCSEs but no one knows for sure what impact this will have on GCSEs. Some interesting times lie ahead!

(Dr) Nicholas Smith,

Principal, Oxford Home Schooling

In February it was reported (e.g. in The Guardian) that flagship “Academy” schools want the government to be less prescriptive about the qualifications they can offer.

In particular, this  group of new schools, set up at vast expense by the Labour government, wants to be allowed to teach “elite” international GCSES (IGCSEs) discouraged in the state sector by the government.

The O-level-style IGCSE exams are favoured by many independent schools, which believe they are more rigorous than traditional GCSEs and more likely to impress universities and also employers.

But government ministers have declined to approve and fund these courses for state secondary schools, effectively preventing schools from offering IGCSEs. Meanwhile, an increasing number of prominent independent schools across the UK (who are not the receipients of funding anyway) have made the switch from GCSE to IGCSE because they believe IGCSE offers a better preparation for A-level and future careers.

In its recent manifesto, the Independent Academies Association (IAA), a coalition of the academies’ heads, insisted the government should be less prescriptive about the qualifications it allows schools to offer.

The body’s chairman, Mike Butler, said several academies had told the IAA that they see IGCSEs as “robust” qualifications and want to be able to offer them. “Academies should have the freedom and autonomy to determine the most appropriate curriculum for their cohort of students,” he said.

Colleges and universities considering student applications adopt an official policy that IGCSEs and GCSEs are directly equivalent but there are some signs that, for institutions “in the know”, IGCSEs carry greater weight. A top grade at IGCSE is seen as a better predictor of future success than the equivalent grade at GCSE.

Recognising this, there are clear indications that if the Conservatives win the forthcoming general election, IGCSEs will be brought into the mainstream, funded and encouraged in secondary schools. Then, if schools are given a free choice, there is a chance that most, if not all, of them, will opt for IGCSE in preference to GCSE. Certainly, the majority of universities would welcome such a development.

The increasing success of IGCSE is also good news for distance learners, adult learners, home-educated children and a variety of other students outside mainstream  education because IGCSEs do not pose the same practical obstacles that GCSEs currently pose, particularly in terms of the requirements for controlled assessment now unavoidable in most GCSE subjects.

For all these reasons, Oxford Home Schooling supports the IAA campaign.

One major legacy of the current government will be the introduction of controlled assessment across the GCSE range. This has profound implications for the future of education in this country.

Controlled assessment replaces the relatively “relaxed” regime of coursework which has been a big part of GCSE exams for the last 24 years. There is a belief that too many parents were, in effect, writing coursework for their children and that something needs to be done about this in order to shore up the academic credibility of the GCSE system.

Rather than get rid of coursework altogether, the government’s “solution” is to turn coursework into something like another exam.  Now it must be timed, supervised and carefully regulated at all stages of preparation, so that parents and other helpers are unable to load the dice.

Although this seems well-intentioned and sensible, it has a number of catastrophic side effects. It means that most GCSEs have become almost impossible for distance learners and home-educated students, indeed virtually everyone outside mainstream education. This, in turn, may damage the educational prospects of many different categories of learners.

Although the government understood that this would be a consequence of controlled assessment, they refused to allow the exam boards to offer alternative GCSE specifications without coursework or any other leeway for unsupervised candidates.

One consequence has been a rise in popularity of IGCSE courses precisely because these do not entail coursework. So far the government has refused to allow IGCSE courses to be funded or included in the National Qualifications Framework but fortunately colleges and universities understand that IGCSEs cover the same ground as GCSEs and are, if anything, more academically rigorous. So an IGCSE is “worth” every bit as much as GCSE. Nonetheless, this is a highly unsatisfactory situation.

A further consequence of the insistence on face-to-face supervision is to stall the introduction of new teaching media. Who would want to study online if they were unable to pass any examinations that way? Thus the UK risks falling behind its competitors because it insists on a single mode of teaching and learning (i.e. face to face) at the expense of more sophisticated methods.

I believe a new government will review controlled assessment and do one of two things. It will either allow the exam boards to make alternative arrangements for candidates who can’t (or don’t want to) do coursework, or it will bring IGCSE into the mainstream, monitor it and fund it properly. Then we can return to a situation where there is genuine educational opportunity for all, not just for 14-16 year olds in mainstream education.

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