Loaded questions have built a consultation on false premises

23rd February 2007 at 00:00
The education equivalent of "Have you stopped beating your wife?" has drawn to a close. In more than 30 years in education I have rarely seen such narrow or loaded questions as those in the Department for Education and Skills' consultation on the International GCSE (IGCSE).

Take question two: "Do you see a role for IGCSE in helping schools to meet the assessment objectives of the national curriculum?" If you answer "yes", the implication is that either the curriculum or the IGCSE would need to change. The Government has already said it won't change the national curriculum, yet neither the awarding bodies nor schools that use and value the IGCSE want the latter to have to change its content to become a clone of the home-grown GCSE.

What are needed are questions of principle and policy. In his speech to the Sixth Form College Forum conference in November, Alan Johnson, the Education Secretary, said: "Every young person should be offered a choice of rigorous, challenging qualifications that suit their interests and abilities. This is the principle that underpins our secondary education and 14-19 reform." Tony Blair made much the same point on the same day when he addressed the annual conference of the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust.

The IGCSE has pedigree and popularity. Offered in more than 150 countries and 60 subjects, its main market at present is international schools. Their reasons for choosing it include:

* an absence of compulsory courseworkin most subjects studied

* better differentiation at the top but still accessible to weaker students (core and extended options cater for varying abilities)

* better preparation for AS and A-level

* more manageable assessment that is less obtrusive and less time-consuming

* syllabuses and styles of exam that are stable and do not regularly change

* quality of examiners (markers and paper-setters) is high, with reliable marking

* an online entry and results system in which results appear earlier.

Disadvantages include:

* costs (more expensive than GCSEs)

* exams take place early in the final term, so there is less teaching time and a potentially awkward period of time to fill after the exams have been taken

* the language demands in some subjects (science, geography) can be challenging for students whose first language is not English.

Whatever the pros and cons of the two formats, at stake are vital principles of professional choice and independence. So why are there no questions in the DfES consultation about choice? Why are respondents not asked if they would prefer a divided system in which only private schools can offer IGCSEs or a unified and inclusive system in which IGCSEs are available to all? If the Government is serious about choice and personalised learning, it will find a creative way to approve the IGCSE that doesn't require it to change its content to match the national curriculum or change its name.

Changing the content to turn the IGCSE into a clone of the GCSE would remove choice and deny schools an additional way to personalise learning as young people could choose exams and assessment that might suit them better.

Changing the name would be easier: the International Certificate of Education has a certain appeal. But why should an exam that is broadly comparable to its nearest relation drop a label that is known, has currency and is recognised by higher education and employers? The DfES consultation does not begin to answer such questions. Worse, it does not even include them. Perhaps there was never any intention to do so.

Has the DfES stopped asking silly questions? On the evidence of this consultation, the answer is "no". We can only hope that ministers, at least, have more common sense.

The consultation ended yesterday

Geoff Lucas is secretary of the Headmasters'and Headmistresses' Conference

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