Why private schools are opting out of GCSE and A-level exams
It is untruthful to suggest that private schools take IGCSEs because they are easier (Labour calls for an inquiry into GCSE changes ‘gamed by private schools’, 31 December).
Until 2010, grade inflation had been rampant at both GCSE and A-level for at least a decade. During the years of New Labour, syllabuses were dumbed down, with simplistic coursework a key requirement of almost every subject. For a few unhappy years, GCSEs even became modular, as A-levels then were, so the nation’s children took public exams every single summer from year 10 to year 13.
Those were the main reasons that many independent schools moved to IGCSE in middle school, and some, like King’s, introduced the International Baccalaureate in the sixth form. We wanted to encourage teaching that was more stimulating and demanding; we thought we were making things better – not easier.
Finally, the difficulty or otherwise of an exam rests partly in the generosity of marking. In 2016, to gain a C in the “easier”, pre-reform GCSE maths, you needed to get 34% of your answers right. In 2017, under the reformed system, just 17% was considered enough for a grade 4 – or “standard pass”. To the glory of neither, I suspect the difference in difficulty between reformed GCSEs and IGCSEs is infinitesimal.
Headmaster, King’s College School, Wimbledon
• It’s welcome news that Labour is demanding an inquiry into the ways private schools are “gaming” the examination system, and Angela Rayner is absolutely correct to say that we cannot have an education system “with different rules for the privileged few”. The inquiry, however, must go further than looking into what is happening at GCSE level.
The fact that more and more private schools are opting for Pre-U exams rather than A-levels is also worthy of investigation. With much higher percentages of A*/A grades, papers set and marked by teachers in the independent sector, and with a more lightly regulated regime than A-levels, Pre-U examinations, provided by Cambridge Assessment, could well be another means of giving the privately educated yet more advantage over pupils from underfunded state schools “in the race for university places”.
The general secretary of the Independent Schools Council might well say that private schools have a duty “to ensure their pupils are fully prepared for their next steps in life”, but is it fair that those “steps” are so far ahead of pupils in the state sector, when increasingly suspicious methods are being used?