Playing on Rubble

I started writing this at the start of December and a few Tweets on the matter have surfaced again, so I’ve pushed ahead to publish. This is about the fact that while state schools have moved to a structure of  100% examination for the GCSE English courses, private schools can still use the IGCSE, with 50% coursework. 

I am not advocating that state schools be allowed to do coursework. Jonathon Peel (@mrpeel) has written about the implications of demanding this, and I agree with him on most parts. I don’t think that it’s helpful to suggest another overhaul of GCSE English, for many reasons. I don’t think that we should be trying to make the course easier. However, I do think that the disparity gives unfair advantage to private school pupils and I do think that use of coursework makes the course easier. I’ll cover why below.

Let’s clarify one thing:

State-schools never used the same IGCSE specifications as private-schools. This was the same for all boards, although I am going to use CIE to exemplify this point, because all their resources and specifications are still live and I’ve taught it. Private schools and international schools didn’t need the specification to be approved by the DfE because they don’t need to satisfy the criteria for national performance tables. Universities, however (including the Russell Group), have accepted the private school IGCSE for years. There has always been a disparity here, but this didn’t really matter too much because the two courses were roughly the same.

Michael Gove then gave the green-light for state-schools to use the IGCSE – a move that was welcomed by most. State-schools couldn’t use the same syllabus as private schools because the private school specification was not accredited to count in the performance tables. A new, DfE-approved one was produced. It was roughly in line with the specification used by the private schools – if anything, the state-school one was slightly more accessible for some students as it included a speaking and listening element, worth 20% of the overall grade.

Here’s a summary so you can get an overview and with links so you can look bits up yourself:

State of Affairs up to and including Summer 2016 (CIE used as example)
  State Schools Private and International Schools
Specification No. 0522 0500
Specification Name IGCSE English – First Language (UK) IGCSE English – First Language
Link to website Link to 0522 Link to 0500
Written coursework requirements Yes – optional route.

3 written assignments.

40% of total marks.

Yes – optional route.

3 written assignments.

50% of total marks.

Speaking and Listening requirements Yes – compulsory element.

10-12 minute discussion with teacher or three shorter interactions, at least one individual.

20% of total marks.

Available as optional route. Does not contribute to final grade. Certificate of achievement awarded.

The Introduction of the Reformed GCSE (first teaching, 2015, first awards 2017)

A series of reforms were introduced, largely marketed as ensuring a ‘fairer’ system. I felt, generally, that these changes were positive, because some schools were pushing their students through every GCSE examination possible. My step-niece started her GCSE English and Maths courses in Year 8 and then was put through GCSE exams 3 and 4 times respectively until she got the C grades. She eventually got the C grades and was so turned off by the whole system that she left school with a desire to never step foot in an educational establishment again. Anyway – I digress. Some of the changes over the last 5 years have included:

  • Linear GCSEs to stop the retake culture in some subjects.
  • ‘First Attempt’ reporting, so that any subsequent result was valid for the child but not the league tables.
  • Abolition of the teacher-assessed Speaking and Listening coursework in GCSE English Language (with a shift to 60% examination/40% controlled assessment), moving to…
  • … 100% examination courses for GCSE English Language and Literature, with a requirement that students still undertake a S&L assessment. This is filmed and a sample submitted to the boards, but does not contribute to overall grades.
  • The new 9-1 GCSE grading system, designed to strengthen our system and help us catch up with the rest of the world and for many reasons, I don’t think that this move is particularly helpful.

Except for if you’re a private school.

As has always been the case, private schools will still be able to use the IGCSE (0500 – outlined above).

The new GCSEs were very much marketed as levelling the playing field. This is NOT a level playing field. OfQUAL, Michael Gove and even OCR said that coursework and controlled assessment were open to abuse by teachers. I agree. I really do – especially when it comes to coursework. If you’re reading this and you’re unclear on the difference: coursework is undertaken in the candidate’s own time. It can be re-drafted and discussed. It can be taken home. Controlled assessment is done under exam conditions, in school, in silence and locked away. It’s still open to abuse, but there were some systems in place to counter this.

This isn’t a level playing field. This is like playing on rubble on our half of the pitch. The state-schools are using the new 9-1, strengthened specification while private schools can still, well, abuse the system. I simply will not accept that submitting coursework as 50% of your final mark is as hard as sitting 4 hours of examinations at the end of a course, especially if you come from a family that has enough status, wealth, power or whatever other prowess to raise the funds to pay for your education. What parent wouldn’t want to help his or her child with this? It’s an easier gig. While private schools aren’t subject to the same performance tables as state schools, they’re still sending citizens out into the work-force and producing candidates for UCAS. Their alumni are at a direct advantage over their peers in the state-system when it comes to their GCSE English results.

I do not want to see a return of coursework or controlled assessment. I don’t think that the petition to ‘allow state-schools to do 40% coursework like private schools do’ is where my heart is.

I just thought, for a while, that my kids would be able to compete in a truly fair battle. How wrong I was.