Oliver Lewis

Multiple choice | 19 March 2011

With GCSEs and A-levels increasingly dumbed down and devalued, experience with broader, more rigorous qualifications is a key advantage for many independent schools. Oliver Lewis explores the options

When it comes to qualifications, English schoolchildren have more choice than ever. Everyone knows about GCSEs and A-levels, yet few pay much attention to the alternatives, such as the International Baccalaureate and the International A-level.

Why are these alternatives overlooked? Because they are the preserve of independent schools. The independent
sector has the great advantage of not being compelled to follow the national curriculum guidelines, which prevent state schools from offering alternative exams. The new government, under Michael Gove’s liberating education agenda, is attempting to give state pupils access to different qualifications, but it is going to take a while. Independent schools, by contrast, have had plenty of time to establish alternative examination systems and mould their education methods to fit.

Surprisingly, the IGCSE, which has earned great praise for its open-ended questions, in-depth syllabuses
and rejection of coursework, is the most contentious exam on offer in independent schools. The last
government banned state schools from offering the IGCSE in compulsory subjects, a decision only overturned
last year. Andrew Grant, chairman of the Headmasters’ Conference, is on record as praising the way it
lets schools ‘meet the best interests of their students’,and other education experts say it is an excellent foundation
for A-levels.

In the private sector, the IGCSE is rapidly establishing itself as a meatier alternative to the GCSE (recently savaged by the High Master of St Paul’s School as ‘baby food’). An increasing number of schools are offering the exam. In 2009, Manchester Grammar School became the fourth independent school to switch entirely to IGCSEs; last year, 855 schools offered it, and a recent survey by the Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conferences found that two thirds of independent schools now offer it in at least one subject.

This is not to say the IGCSE is without critics. In 2006 the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority condemned
its lack of prescribed reading in English, the lack of an oral test in French and the absence of noncalculator
exams in maths.

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