A flood of new qualifications risk creating a two-tier education system with traditional exams being seen as “worthless”, public school teachers and education experts have warned.
Elite private and top state schools are increasingly using the International GCSE (IGCSE), Pre-U and International Baccalaureate (IB), leading to warnings that ordinary GCSEs and A-Levels could lose their value and make it harder for comprehensive students to get into university, and get jobs.
In the year that state schools have been able to take up IGCSEs, 198 have taken them up and according to the Independent Schools Council more than 44,000 private school students took IGCES in 2010.
Jannette Elwood , professor of education at Queen’s University in Belfast, said the situation could create an “educational divide” which could harm students for the rest of their lives
“I think we just have to be very, very careful that these examinations don’t have different currencies because we don’t have the evidence to suggest that one or another is harder or more valid, and it could have impacts on their university entrance and their jobs.”
Elwood said the rise of non-traditional qualifications comes alongside other factors like the introduction of the A* grade for A-levels, cautioning “quasi-similar” exams are being labelled as tougher without enough evidence:
“I think we don’t have enough research about IGCSEs, there’s a perception out there that they are harder but that’s not backed up by evidence. I think the same with the Pre-U and the A-level, I think young people are working as hard as they can in a climate when grades are increasing and university places are decreasing.”
A teacher at one of Britain’s top private schools, speaking under conditions of anonymity, told the Huffington Post UK that GCSEs could be on the way out.
“Some private schools are moving away from government qualifications. I used to predict that eventually we'd end up with state schools being forced to use worthless government qualifications and highly academic private schools using their own distinct class of qualifications, which would make the question of university entry rather more interesting.”
Professor of education at Nottingham University, Roger Murphy, said the exams “could be gone in five years” not just because of changing qualifications, but because many people are staying on longer at school.
“Now the age of school leaving is going up some people would say they are less necessary. We really stand out as the only developed nation in the world that has major examinations at two age points.
“I think an interesting idea is the future of it. Just the money side of it. I’ve seen analysis showing schools are spending more money on exams than books. It’s interesting because I think we’ve got this huge over-assessed system.”
“I think that many people have said we are too preoccupied with assessing young people. We need to get an emphasis back on teaching them and getting the develop and the two things don’t go well together. It’s not just the cost of exams it’s the impact they have on schools and teachers. The emphasis on trying to get better grades isn’t necessarily good for schools.”
But for now, author Francis Gilbert, who teaches English at a comprehensive, predicts the situation is just too complicated to severely impact next year’s wave of graduates.
“It’s just going to get too difficult for the university admissions people to work out what all these qualifications mean.
“The bottom line is, the really top Russell Group universities want As and A*s at university.
“Obviously some of the GCSEs are a bit easier in certain ways than the IGCSEs, but if you look at them carefully there are certain ways GCSEs are more challenging.
“For example in English, English Literature GCSEs will ask high level conceptual questions, but the IGCSE is more demanding when it comes to memorising things.
“I believe that’s less educationally demanding than say, analysing how a writer creates suspense.”