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GCSEs and IGCSEs in a changing curricular landscape


– Charlie Hammel, Director of Studies at St Swithun’s School, Winchester

Any parent considering a boarding school for their child at 11+ or 13+ entry is certain to discover that changes to the main curriculum options at ages 14-16 (Years 10 and 11) – GCSEs and IGCSEs – will become relevant for their son or daughter in the coming years.

This is an exciting stage of education for many reasons, not least because it is when most pupils have their first opportunity to begin selecting some subject options and determining their own academic programme. As it also leads to formal qualifications in the shape of (I)GCSEs, an understanding of what schools offer currently and how that is likely to be affected by ongoing changes to the curricular landscape is useful information for parents and pupils alike.

Evolving qualifications

International GCSEs (IGCSEs) are long-established qualifications, originally developed as equivalent to GCSEs for international schools. Their structure has remained essentially ‘linear’, which means that assessment takes place by examination at the end of the two-year course. By contrast, until recently GCSEs had evolved differently and become more ‘modular’, with courses subdivided into relatively discrete units. This ‘modularisation’ was matched by more piecemeal assessment, with opportunities to complete coursework (or ‘controlled assessment’) and take some examination papers throughout the course. 

Over the past decade independent boarding schools, and independent schools generally, have helped drive a proliferation of IGCSEs within the UK. In 2015 IGCSEs accounted for over 43% of examinations taken by Year 11 pupils in independent schools, a percentage that has quadrupled in just five years, from 11% in 2010. This has happened because independent schools have perceived a number of advantages in IGCSEs:

  • greater emphasis on breadth and depth of knowledge, in addition to cultivation of skills
  • a higher degree of academic rigour
  • more insulation from political change
  • the opportunity to devote more curricular time to teaching than to formal assessments
  • and, consequently, the chance for pupils’ intellectual maturation to occur with less interruption over a two-year course.

What schools offer

More than 75 per cent of leading independent schools now offer a mixture of GCSEs and IGCSEs. This is the approach we have adopted at St Swithun’s, where each subject department has autonomy to select the course that provides the most appropriate blend of academic rigour, accessibility and progression to further study at A level. Some schools prefer either GCSEs or IGCSEs exclusively, and these approaches are also legitimate. It is worth underscoring that both qualifications are respected, valued and understood by universities and employers.

There are advantages to the mixed economy of GCSEs and IGCSEs favoured by so many independent schools. During the summer examination period, IGCSE papers tend to both begin and end a couple of weeks earlier than GCSEs. Therefore, in a demanding time for Year 11 pupils, those studying for a mixture of the two can find that their examinations are spread over a slightly longer time period, which can be beneficial in managing final revision and preparation. There are positives for schools as well. The surging interest in IGCSEs, current reforms to GCSEs and corresponding revisions to IGCSEs mean that for most subjects schools are increasingly able to choose from several up-to-date linear specifications.

Changes on the horizon

Phased, national reforms to GCSEs have recently begun, with the stated aim of making them more rigorous. The first of these new examinations will be taken in summer 2017 in English language, English literature and mathematics, and all subjects will be reformed by summer 2019. In practice, the new GCSEs would seem to be taking on many characteristic features of IGCSEs. Assessment will be linear, with examinations taken at the end of the two-year course, and other forms of assessment, including controlled assessment, are being removed or significantly reduced.

One of the most noteworthy changes in the reformed GCSEs is the introduction of a new, numerical 9 to 1 grading scale to replace the A* to G system. At the top end of the scale, the new grades 7 to 9 will be awarded to the same proportion of candidates as currently achieve grades A and A*, with the top 20% of those differentiated by the highest grade, 9.

The above changes are already being reflected in IGCSEs as well. Their syllabi are being adjusted to reflect additional content in the new GCSEs, and at the time of writing it is clear that at least some IGCSEs will adopt the new 9 to 1 grading system. There would appear to be a convergence taking place, though much remains to be worked out in the detail of the reforms and their implications.

Advice for parents and pupils

Parents and pupils should feel able to ask informed questions about the (I)GCSE courses offered by a school, and the school should be able to explain how it is responding to curricular changes and the rationale for the combination of courses it offers. More specific questions can be posed, often on a subject level, about how each course helps to meet the needs and interests of pupils at that school.

Just as it is important to be aware of curricular reforms, in making subject choices pupils are always best advised to play to their own strengths and select the subjects they find most interesting and enjoyable. The finer details of structure of any (I)GCSE course should not be a deciding factor because after all the qualification itself only lends a structure, albeit an important one, for pupils’ learning at this level.


Charlie Hammel has been Director of Studies at St Swithun's School, Winchester, since September 2014. He was previously Head of History at King Edward VI High School for Girls, Birmingham. Before that he was Head of Scholars at Warwick School, where he taught History, Politics and Latin. He read History and Medieval Studies at Princeton University and completed a postgraduate Master's in Mediaeval History at the University of St Andrews before embarking on a teaching career in independent schools.

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