This is a question that the government clearly finds very hard to answer. In 2010 the Department for Education encouraged state schools to prepare their pupils for IGCSEs – the version of GCSEs originally intended for overseas schools – by providing the relevant funding and including these qualifications in school league table statistics. The rationale for this decision, which reversed the previous Labour government’s policy, was that IGCSEs were more intellectually demanding than their domestic equivalents and provided more effective preparation for A Levels. The content, especially in subjects such as Maths, was deemed to be of a higher standard, while their ‘linear’ structure, with greater emphasis on end-of-course exams, made them more rigorous and demanding. This point of view was backed up by Heads and teachers in many high-flying schools, and became something close to received wisdom on the subject. Throughout this period Ashbourne remained faithful to GCSEs, but we could not fail to notice that by last year around a third of British Year 11 students were being entered for the international version of the qualification.
How confusing it was to find out recently that the government is, apparently,proposing to stop schools from submitting IGCSE results in school league tables! It is even more disturbing to discover that IGCSEs are now seen as a soft option by many teachers and that this is a reason for the increasing popularity of the international qualification, particularly in subjects such as English Language, for which the number of IGCSE students increased fourfold last year. It must be added that uncertainty in the previous year about grade boundaries in English may have contributed to this statistic, but more generally conventional GCSEs are regarded as having had their sinews stiffened by harder syllabuses and more rigorous marking. This has put some schools off them, but clearly has ignited the government’s new enthusiasm for the domestic version of GCSEs. Moreover, the reformed GCSES, which will be taught from next year, will re-establish a tough ‘linear’ framework, setting the stage for 2017, when they will become the only qualifications that can be used in the compilation of league tables.
Our educational system, and current government, are caught Janus-like between a commitment to greater choice in the running of schools and a fixation on the standardisation of syllabuses. The government’s volte-face against IGCSEs is part of this process of imposing greater control and will cause considerable disruption. Already, many teaching organisations have registered their dismay at the decision. Yet, while schools may abhor centralisation, it is our opinion that the doubling up of IGCSEs and GCSEs did not offer choices that were valuable enough to justify the inevitable ambiguity and confusion.