IGCSE just as robust as ‘gold standard’ GCSE, say independent schools

With claims that private school pupils receive an advantage for taking IGCSEs, we ask the independent school sector what they think

Leading figures in independent education have condemned accusations that private school pupils are sitting easier exams than those at state schools.

This comes after The Guardian published a story claiming that education reforms are giving private school pupils a “huge additional advantage” when applying for university places and jobs, by allowing them to sit less demanding, internationally recognised GCSEs (IGCSEs), while state schools sit the new, more demanding “gold-standard” GCSEs.

However, Sally-Anne Huang, headmistress of James Allen’s Girls’ School (JAGS), has highlighted her frustration at the independent school sector being used as the “go-to public enemy” in a blog post. She said: “The case that IGCSEs are easier than GCSEs remains unproven. Differences vary from subject to subject and, ironically, most independent schools chose them years ago precisely because they were perceived as more rigorous and better preparation for A-level.”

“They have also stuck with them for years, sometimes in the face of marks seeming to be worse than those at GCSE, because they felt they were better educationally. Similarly, we don’t know what, if any difference, they are going to make in terms of university places since the pupils taking the new reformed GCSEs have not yet applied to university.”

She wrote of how JAGS has conducted itself over the past few years, including allowing heads of department to choose which course to follow, as experts in their field. “They do not seek out the easiest courses, which would be educationally short-sighted, especially at GCSE which, for us, is a gateway to A-level,” said Huang.

She concluded: “If the politicians wanted to give all headteachers the same level of choice and flexibility that I enjoy, then accusations of an unfair system would be redundant and we could work together to improve education for all young people rather than perpetuate this ‘them and us’ narrative which serves only political agendas.”

We could work together to improve education for all young people rather than perpetuate this ‘them and us’ narrative which serves only political agendas

Equal opportunities

Irfan Latif, principal at DLD College London, also commented, saying the IGCSEs have always been seen as a rigorous qualification.

He said: “In 2016 the CIE (Cambridge International Education, which developed the IGCSE exam) commissioned a national agency in the UK to carry out in-depth, independent benchmarking analysis to compare the Cambridge IGCSE to the UK GCSE and found the IGCSE to be a robust qualification that is comparable to the gold standard of UK GCSE.

“Unfortunately, there is no concrete evidence that the new GCSEs have disadvantaged state school pupils as we have yet to complete a university application with the new GCSEs. Having led both independent and state schools, my frustration was the inability to offer the IGCSE to state school pupils – they have not been given the opportunity to take an equally valid and robust qualification and this is mainly because of political rather than educational reasons. In fact, the then Secretary of State for Education encouraged headteachers to introduce IGCSEs into their curriculum because it was seen as a better qualification than the GCSE.”

Latif continued: “It’s not a level playing field. Independent schools are not ‘gaming’ the system but ensuring that we offer the best opportunities and pathways for our students to succeed and achieve to their potential. It’s not about league tables (IGCSEs do not feature in national league tables) ­– we just want to do what is best for our students from a teaching and learning perspective allowing them to access the best further education and employment opportunities. State school students should be given the same opportunities.

“Analysis of the results over the past three years comparing the new GCSE levels to the old GCSE grades show that the numbers at each level/grade have remained constant. Are the new GCSEs actually harder than the old ones? It remains to be seen.”

The Guardian’s claims were backed up by information from data released in parliamentary answers and research into the exams chosen by private schools.

The parliamentary answers revealed that in 2017-18, 91% of international GCSEs in EBacc subjects were in independent schools. Furthermore, an independent school pupil was 136 times more likely to sit an IGCSE than a state-funded school pupil.

A Department for Education spokesperson said the new exams were tougher than the ones being widely used in private schools: “International GCSEs have not been through the same regulatory approval and quality control as the new gold-standard GCSEs, which is why we no longer recognise international GCSEs in school performance tables.”


With independent school heads receiving what seems like conflicting advice about qualifications, what do you think about the issue? Get in touch by emailing jo.golding@wildfirecomms.co.uk.

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