GCSE – the first major yardstick for measuring success

Some things in life never change as it has always been the case that society makes judgement about people’s intelligence based on how many subjects they do well in at the age of 16. In the modern British education system, it is called GCSE but until the early to mid 1980s, it was called O levels. There are other variations, which I’ll speak about later in this article.

The pass rate at GCSE has always featured prominently in the news as this is the yardstick for which the success of schools and in fact sixteen-year-olds is measured by. Up until a couple of years ago, a 16-year-old had to achieve five good pass grades at GCSE to be judged successful, but the government upped the game about 7 or so years ago by introducing the EBacc – English Baccalaureate.

The EBacc – the English Baccalaureate – requires a student to secure a good pass grade at GCSE in English, Maths, two Sciences, either History or Geography and one language such as French, German, Latin and so on. Under the old letter grading system, the minimum requirement in each of these subject is a C Grade. Under the new system, it is Grade 5 that is acceptable as the lowest for EBacc.

It must be said that there are other qualifications that are equivalent to the GCSE and I’ll explain each of them here briefly.

The IGCSE – International GCSE – which has more or less the same content as the GCSE but is a little harder than GCSE in most subjects, except for English. Considering the fact that the British GCSE is taken in about 96 countries of the world and that many of those countries do not have English as their first language – or in fact lingual franca, it makes sense to have a version of GCSE, for which the English is not too challenging.

For almost all other subjects except for English, the IGCSE is more challenging because the content is broader and questions are perhaps a little harder. However, in English it is not as challenging as most of the young people taking the examination are not native English speakers. A few years ago, many British schools were entering their students for IGCSE in English as it is a little easier and it can help them to achieve good pass grades – better that what they would have achieved at GCSE English. The government stopped recognising the IGCSE English as counting towards five good GCSE passes for that obvious reason. If your child is taking one or more IGCSEs, you need not worry too much as it is fine and the school has judged it to be the correct qualification for that subject for him or her. As mentioned earlier, except for English Literature or English Language, IGCSE is of a high standard.

BTECS – Another qualification, which is accepted as being equivalent to GCSE is the BTEC – which is a vocational qualification. The BTEC has several levels from Level 1 to Level 7 – with Level 2 being equivalent to GCSE and Level 3 equivalent to A-level. In reality, the top elite universities and most employers do not buy into that as they regard the BTEC as inferior, which in my view, it is. It is a vocational qualification based mainly on coursework and very few examinations and is not designed to prepare a student to study at degree level. In fact, Level 7 BTEC is supposed to be equivalent to a degree but not many reputable institutions buy that concept.

BTEC at any level is not an academic but a vocational qualification and it is at the very least snubbed by the top universities. It is fine for many young people as society needs people with vocational qualifications. In fact, as a tradesperson, with BTEC qualifications and is well trained in fields such plumbing, electrical, hairdressing and beauty and so on, one can make a very good living, with the prospect of setting up a very successful business in the future. It’s just good to have clarity and not to listen to a course adviser that tells you that BTEC is equally recognised as GCSE and A-level, as that is far from reality.

The new GCSE grading system – should I be worried as a parent?

I would ask you not to be too worried about the new GCSE grading system and not to let the apprehension about it affect your son or daughter too much. The two main issues with the new number grading system are: not as many exam practice papers and also it is harder to get a high grade.

Both of these two are a real issue, however, neither as bad as it is generally perceived to be. If I should tackle the first point first – inadequate numbers of past exam questions. There are two reasons why it’s not that bad: the scarcity of specimen papers and past exam papers that are specific to this new curriculum applies to all the students in the country so your child is not unfairly penalised by this. The second reason is that yes, there is a little additional material in some subjects under the new grading system, which makes it harder in those subject. For example, there is now more algebra in Maths. However, there is not a lot of new material so the old past examination questions can still be used to practise for the new exams. Good teachers, which I hope your child has one of those, will organise things well and use both old and new materials for preparing their students. The teacher will also prepare additional materials, which may be from a different examination board or even AS level, but which are relevant to the new curriculum and assessment system, and used them carefully and effectively.

A lot can be achieved in three to four months before the summer examinations

The good news is that there is no more modular examinations. It used to be the case that by this time of the academic year – February, a substantial part of the GCSE has already been examined and there is often no chance of your child retaking the modules they’ve already sat. Due to the abandonment of the modular system and the elimination of coursework at GCSE, everything is still up for grab until the actual exams in the summer.

The content of the GCSE, as opposed to the old O level, is that it is not too challenging and there is not a huge volume of material. If a young person can sit down and really focus a lot can be achieved between February and early June, when the bulk of the core GCSE exams take place. A well thought out programme for revision, which include making effort to learn and really understand the key concepts, revising well by using past examination questions to practise, can make a big difference, even in only three to four months before the exam. It’s useful for you as a parent to ensure that your child is well supported at school. Pay attention to communication from school, speak to your child and also the teachers at school and establish your child’s strengths and weaknesses and do all you can to support him or her in these few crucial months, leading up to the summer examinations.


General Advice – no matter the age of your child

Your child’s school should always be the first point of contact and it is only after you have exhausted that avenue that you should look for additional support from an external source. I guess that the level of support provided varies from one subject to another, even within the same school. Also, your child’s strength, motivation, interest and work ethic, vary from subject to subject. He or she may, in the end, only need additional support in just a few core subjects and it is useful to identify those as early as you can so he or she can start receiving the additional support that may be required.

Dialogue with your child is important

I know that for many families, trying to have a constructive dialogue with a teenager is not always the easiest thing. However, there is no alternative to speaking to your child regularly about the progress he or she is making in core subject areas. What is at stake is huge and has very wide ramifications so it has to be done. It may be difficult to start with, but if you persist and make him or her understand the importance of doing well in the examinations and the potential consequences of poor exam grade, he or she will come on board with you in the end.

You need not worry at all that the subject that your child requires help in, is not the one that you are familiar or good at yourself. For most parents at this level, it’s not about teaching your son or daughter but trying to explore where issues and concern lie and talking to them to both offer moral support and try to encourage them along and identify the sort of additional help they may require.

One key point that I’ll like to remind you once again is that in achieving high exam grades or in fact any successful endeavour in life, nurture matters more than nature. It is not just how bright your child is, it’s how much they apply themselves and the specific actions they actually take. I’m not just going to say it’s all about hard work. Surely, hard work comes into is but is mainly what they actually do with the time they put into their work.

Some perhaps not-so-cool words come to my mind: discipline, habits, perseverance, focus and working smartly to get more out of the study time.

I’m not going to go too much into specifics here but what I’ll say first is that reparation for examinations is not in isolation to other aspects of life. I have written extensively and offered suggestions and advice on how parents can support their children to ensure they get the most out of the education system in general and also specifically about achieving high exam grades.

Two key things I’ll mention, which if not done carefully will lead to poor results are how the young person thinks and how they use their time. The two concepts are related really. The young person must be very clear in their mind, which subjects they need to do well in including their desired grade and what they will do to achieve those grades. They should be ambitious but at the same time realistic and ensure that they adopt behaviours that are congruent to the assertion. The second is how they use their time.

The blessing and curse of electronics

Electronic gadgets have revolutionised our world as they help us to gain access to useful and valuable information and also to entertain ourselves. However, they are also a huge distraction and an enemy of productivity. Too many of us are enslaved to them and we have allowed them to control us, instead of using them to improve productivity and for entertainment at the appropriate time. We adults are perhaps just as guilty as the young people! With regards to students, who are studying for their GCSEs and A-level, which are academic qualifications and require a good degree of concentration. There is too much distraction about and too many young people are not able to focus for any given length of time without being distracted by text messages, Facebook, Instagram, TV, e-mail, phone calls and all sorts of electronic blips and messages.

The smartphone and tablets must be turned off whilst studying or at the very least put on aircraft mode so no distractions. In addition to when they are studying, there are other two key times of the day when all these devices must be off and those are before they go to sleep in the night and upon waking up in the morning. Too many people, including children and adults, use electronic devices in a way that takes away value, instead of adding value to their lives and it is something so seriously think about. Do you really need to respond to that text message now or to update your Facebook now or can it be left till later?

The final point on the issue of revision for young people is to do less online or revision by computers. It can be useful at times, as finding a good website to use for revision or download study material can be a smart move. However, a limited amount of online revision using a computer should be done. Printing out real life question papers, attempting those questions by writing on the scripts and getting a teacher to mark, if only a selected few of those papers, is very powerful. It means that the student has done a lot of practice in actually writing and articulating their answers and with some of the work marked and meaningful feedback provided, it really helps to improve. Many young people do not bother to print out questions and write on it, they just look at the question on the screen, think about what they think is the answer and check the mark scheme to see if their thoughts are correct. That is an awful practice and should constitute, if at all 10% of the questions-practice. Most of it should be done by writing on the printed scrips as this is more of a reflection of the real exams.

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