Please note that this was written a while ago but not published at the time. Please see the end of this article for a link to a more up to date article on GCSE and IGCSE
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 around 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 the 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 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, even as late as between December 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.
*Please note that this was written a while ago but not published at the time. Some of the points made may be a little dated but are still very relevant. You may see the last two blogposts on this website as they are both about IGCSEs and GCSEs