The bulk of this post was written in 2012/13 at the time that the IGCSE was being used as a scapegoat by a government eager to prevent gaming and playing the system to inflate the perceived quality of teaching at an establishment.
I return to it as a mark of my utter confusion about the League Tables published today. Suddenly, due to the removal of some IGCSE marks from the tables there is a distinctly topsy-turvey appearance to them. Low down come the great Independents – the big beasts such Eton and Harrow or Winchester who apparently attained no students with 5 A*-C passes at GCSE. None. It’s as though Chelsea were suddenly deemed to be at the foot of the Vauxhall Conference, regardless of results, because the FA ruled Portugese managers no longer rigorous enough for English Football. Madness. My new school is similarly affected, so instead of 99.whatever% achievement, we scored a big fat zero.
Except we didn’t.
The boys I have inherited scored 100% A*-C and 75% A*-A in English – my subject. Yet to a casual observer we have somehow failed. All because we teach IGCSE. That is, because we teach a course licensed for teaching by OFQUAL and generally found to be a strong and rigorous test for all who sit it. (This is the Edexcel version in Language and the CIE version in Lit).
What a bizarre state of affairs. I suppose we are protected slightly by our independent status – possibly parents in this sector don’t look quite so closely at the league tables as do their counterparts in the state sector. But then, what of the fact that in a full table, the weakest schools are no longer at the bottom of the list or that the top 50 aren’t actually the highest achieving schools? it makes a total nonsense of this system of judging quality.
Odd isn’t it? The Government want to downgrade these exams which are proven to be successful, and in the case of CIE have a far longer track record than any version of the current GCSE, and yet are unwilling to move to a single examination board. The result is an incomplete set of data based on the notion of a single GCSE – something that does not even exist.
There seems to be a movement which suggests that the recent shift to IGCSE from GCSE has come about due to the perception that the exams are easier. I have taught both forms of exam across a range of boards and have to disagree.
My school shifted before the furore over marking which sent many running for cover last year and I have blogged at length about that decision here: https://jwpblog.wordpress.com/2012/10/06/thoughts-on-adopting-igcse-english/
The point is that we took the decision more to get away from CAs than to find an easier exam.
Indeed the CIE academically rigorous and marked to reflect this. We were warned that grades would slip until we had mastered the marking expectations and there is clear evidence that a better-read pupil with a wider range of life experience will have a better chance of exploring the unseen extracts effectively. That said, there are clear techniques which can be taught to address each section of each paper. The trick seems to be in preparation which makes it abundantly clear what is required. The range of text studied in the two anthologies is broad and interesting with regular changes to the prescribed texts. All in all, a strong syllabus and a strong exam.
The same is true of Edexcel’s version which I currently teach. Here I have more concerns:
The sheer quantity of anthology based teaching produces material which can be very tedious for all to prepare and which is not examined at great length. This suggests that a more general approach might be a viable method of preparation since analytical detail is not encouraged by the mark scheme.
The exams are weirdly weighted with 70% resting on English language paper 1. This seems odd and unnecessary. A poor performance really can remove any chance of a B or above, whilst a good performance can guarantee one even if paper 2is not attempted. This seems bizarre.
The texts in the anthologies are not exciting, with the non fiction set particularly uninspiring.
There is a great risk of teaching to the test here, simply to ensure that the anthologies have been fully prepared. We have been at pains to avoid this, starting skills work in Year 9 and breaking up the teaching over a 3 year KS4. Still, when one section contains 16 poems, it can be tricky! We flipped classrooms, wrote screencasts and tried to develop as much of a range of teaching as possible- all available on the school YouTube site.
All in all, a mixed bag. Certainly this is not an easier option, much too simplistic. There is pressure in an approach in which no marks can be banked and this should not be overlooked. The principal benefactors of the shift from CAs were us, the staff, although the freeing up of four or five weeks for teaching in the academic year did no one any harm!