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.

Recently, many GCSE subjects have moved away from coursework, and this trend is continuing. But is this a good thing or not?

It may be worth thinking back to the rationale of coursework being introduced in the first place. This varies slightly from subject to subject, but there are some common themes.

First of all, it allowed a different element of assessment to be introduced into the qualification, aside of an exam. Certain things are difficult to evaluate in an exam, such as how well the student is able to use and apply what they have learnt in an unfamiliar situation.

Mathematics lessons, particularly with less able students, begin to take on the characteristics of a game of Chinese whispers as pupils move through their school career. Students struggling with the subject give up asking the all important “why” and settle instead for the much less ambitious “how.”

If you teach a proof for Pythagoras theorum, some students will find that irritating. They will ask: “Is it in the exam”, and as proofs are almost never required in GCSE exams, you may answer: “no.” Unfortunately, this means the students will stop listening. They don’t want to know why something works; they want to know what to do if they see a certain type of question.

In fact, the least able students will be happiest in a Maths lesson repeating similar problems over and over again. Like an actor learning lines, they will try to memorise all the possible permutations of Maths questions and how to do them. A dedicated student of this kind will be able to get a reasonable grade in an exam, but they will gain little real understanding of the subject. Sadly, there are many Maths teachers willing to simply settle for the exam result alone. They are less interested in producing independently thinking people because exam results are pretty much all that their employers use to assess a teacher’s professional quality or worth.

In the end, the best proof of having learnt a skill is how well you can use it without help and how easily you develop it into new areas. This is precisely what coursework tries to assess.

So why is coursework being scrapped? There are two reasons. Firstly, the marking of such work is not easy and needs to be carefully moderated, so that equivalent pieces of work always obtain the same mark or something very close to it. It is time-consuming for busy teachers, and the production of coursework in class takes up valuable exam preparation time. Secondly, and most importantly, students will often submit work they have had help with, be it from friends, tutors, elder siblings or parents. This is very hard to c0ntrol unless you insist on controlled exam conditions. For the exam boards it was the decisive factor. Put simply, they suspected widespread cheating.

This issue will be discussed further in a second article, “On Retaining the Beneficial Elements of GCSE Coursework.”

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, 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.

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.

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

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.

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