GCSE and iGCSE exam divergence risks students’ futures

Without consistency in exams across the international sector, an international head wonders how students can be judged fairly

Matt Topliss

Easton and Otley College says the move to merge with two colleges will secure the long-term future of land-based education in East Anglia

When the announcements concerning GCSE and A-Level examinations were made in the UK, it was hoped this would bring clarity for students, parents and schools over the months ahead.

While questions remain, there appears to be broad support for the plan and the speed with which it was enacted.

However, for international students and schools, announcements by examination boards have only created uncertainty and inconsistency between subjects, countries and education systems.

Two-tier systems

Specifically, we are facing a situation where some students now have the prospect – in our school at least – of having some of their grades determined in examinations (Cambridge IGSCE/IAL, Edexcel IGCSE/IAL) and some by teacher assessment (UK Edexcel GCSE/GCE).

How can this be considered a level playing field between trusted qualifications?

After all, some countries are mandated by local regulations to teach online while others are able to maintain face-to-face teaching, the inconsistency of which potentially devalues and undermines the qualifications that thousands of international students are taking worldwide.

This situation is raising concern among students, parents and teachers at a time when schools are already placed under increasing pressure as we balance online, hybrid or face-to-face teaching with Covid-19 restrictions and the health and safety of our staff and students.

It’s no surprise that almost 25,000 students have already signed a petition urging the exams boards to change course.

Doing what we can

But we are where we are.

Our preparation for this two-system approach is heavily reliant on close working and communication with the examination boards as we continue to understand what is expected from us as we move through each announcement.

We are paying direct attention to students in Year 11, who studied online for 12 weeks of Year 10. We have developed a clear picture of their current levels of attainment through preparation examinations, extra classes, and guidance and mentoring to ensure students are settled and understand where they currently are and what still needs to be completed.

We have also been offered the chance, by one examination board, to apply to remove certain components of a syllabus and students will be guided on what they can expect to be tested on this summer in those examinations that do continue.

Our teachers, who were excellent last year in the predictions they made and the evidence that informed those decisions, are again collecting evidence through regular assessment and progress meetings with students.

As a result, we are also seeing students’ attendance and focus is more consistent across the school year rather than rising up as exams loom on the horizon.

Again, regular communication between the school and students and their parents has been crucial in ensuring that transparency and clear decision making can alleviate any concerns and anxieties that all parties may have.

Major doubts remain

Yet despite all this, key questions still exist and a lingering sense of unfairness persists.

How will examination boards be ensuring that there is complete consistency of delivery in the teaching and learning experience for students across all areas of the world, given that some countries are currently working online while others have returned to face-to-face teaching?

Some qualifications are also heavily reliant on components that are best or only completed in school, working alongside qualified and trained teachers and with resources or facilities that can only be found in schools.

While schools are able to discuss and apply for certain components to be removed – as noted – how can this be fairly and consistently applied across all schools?

Time for a rethink

We know this is a fluctuating and ever-changing situation and the exam boards are, no doubt, working as best they can.

But clarity and a robust, consistent approach that is fair across all schools worldwide must surely be the top priority so that staff, students and parents can prepare correctly and fairly.  

As a school, we welcome the chance for our students to go into examinations and test themselves against the examination papers but this must be done in a safe and fair manner to protect our communities and to ensure these qualifications hold the value and integrity they deserve.

Matt Topliss is British school principal at El Alsson British and American International School New Giza, Egypt

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