IGCSE, Mental Health and exams: the press have been talking about schools again

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I’m not sure how interesting the intricacies of the UK exam system really are.

Nonetheless, occasionally, when there is not much other news to be found, the press will seize on something and make much of it. Such an occasion occurred in the fallow period between Christmas and New Year, when, with not much else happening, there was a fluttering of excitement: “Labour demands enquiry into how GCSE reform has benefited private schools” trumpeted The Guardian; “Private schools ‘cheating the system’” added The Times. At about the same time, and rather more interestingly, Gus O’Donnell, the former head of the civil service, spoke of the UK “sleepwalking into a deepening crisis“ with an “addiction to exams“ fuelling stress and anxiety in schools.

So, what are we to make of these two press stories? Something over nothing, or a justified attack on a system which is not working?

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International GCSEs first. Are they easier? Not really. As with any course, it is easy if you can do it, difficult if you can’t. Are they different? A little bit: some involve coursework, and each demands a different focus (just as each of the various mainstream exam boards offers a slightly different focus).  Do we use them at Bede’s? Yes, in a limited number of subjects. English Literature, for some students in Maths, Business and Economics, Geography, History, Computer Science, and PE. Why? Because, with a cornucopia of different exam boards available to us, it is our job to choose the options which best serve our students. In some cases this will be the International GCSE. One of the joys of being an independent school is that, not having to worry about performance tables (in which IGCSEs are not recognised) we can follow the exam courses we think are the best, for our students. The exam courses where we feel the material covered, and the way in which it is covered, works best for the children under our aegis. There is no diktat from above, no school-wide policy, for this: rather, I trust Heads of Departments to choose the best course for their subjects, and to teach those courses in the best possible fashion.

When politicians start opining on the subject of education, I tend to roll my eyes, a little. In this instance, the suggestion that IGCSEs are not as worthwhile as mainstream GCSEs because, in the words of a Department for Education spokesperson quoted in The Guardian, they have “not been through the same regulatory approval and quality control as the new gold standard GCSEs” is, frankly, puzzling. There’s been a great deal of “regulatory approval and quality control” flying around, but I’m not convinced that the exams which have been approved and quality controlled are any better for it. The setting and marking of those exams still causes uproar each year. It would be nice, possibly, to believe that because something was regulated it was, thus, by definition, better - but I’m not sure that this is so.

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Which brings us to Lord O’Donnell’s intervention. His suggestion that there is a mental health crisis amongst young people will come as no surprise to any who work with young people, and he is not the first to link that crisis, at least in part, to the pressure that is placed on those young people by the exam-focused system in which they are educated. Clearly, as educators, we are doing no child a favour by allowing him or her to achieve less well than they might have done, had they worked harder or been more focused. But finding the right balance is crucial. Making sure that the pressure children feel themselves under is manageable, and measured. Making sure that no-one is ever allowed to believe that they will be defined by the results they achieve in public exams – be they good, bad or indifferent. Making sure that children approach their exams well prepared, confident, and able to perform to the very best of their abilities – whether that be in an IGCSE, a GCSE, a BTEC, an A Level, a Pre U, or in any one of the very many exams they will be facing at Bede’s over the coming six months. And part of all of this is working to make sure that students are taking the right courses in the first place.

The discussion over IGCSE courses really isn’t a very interesting one. So long as there is a free market of qualifications, we will be duty-bound to find the right courses for our pupils. But the suggestion that this simply means we will go for the “easiest” courses – whatever that might mean – is fallacious, insulting, and wrong.

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