Page last updated at 13:04 GMT, Friday, 13 March 2009

IGCSEs branded 'marketing tool'

By Katherine Sellgren
BBC News education reporter, at the ASCL conference

IGCSEs favour end-of-term exams rather than coursework

A head teacher leader says independent schools which enter pupils for International GCSES will create a two-tier, private-state system.

John Dunford of the Association of School and College Leaders said the IGCSE name was a misleading marketing tool, as it was anything but a GCSE.

His comments followed the announcement by independent Manchester Grammar that it was moving over entirely to IGCSEs.

They were meant for schools overseas whose coursework could not be checked.

Now they are being taken up by the independent sector in England, which regards the exams as more stretching.

But state schools are not able to put their pupils in for IGCSEs because they do not assess England's national curriculum so are not funded by the Department for Children, Schools and Families.

Market-based approach

The ASCL represents school leaders in both the state and independent sectors.

Speaking at the start of the its annual conference, in Birmingham, general secretary John Dunford said IGCSEs introduced an unnecessary market in qualifications.

"GCSEs are not like a supermarket product where you want a consumer choice. They are an important exam for 16-year-olds who should not be subject to that kind of a market-based approach.

Good teachers are not limited by exams syllabuses to stimulate very bright pupils
John Dunford
ASCL general secretary
"The results of GCSEs are looked at by university admission tutors alongside AS grades. If you've got some doing GCSEs and some doing IGCSEs you're not comparing like with like, it's not the same exam."

He said IGCSEs could result in an "unfortunate split" between the independent sector, which could use them, and the maintained sector which could not.

Dr Dunford also dismissed the IGCSE as an "old-fashioned approach", with some modern language courses not having an oral exam and some English syllabuses not requiring the study of a Shakespeare play.

He is seeking to perpetuate a status quo which is not looking after the needs of the most gifted pupils across all sectors
Martin Stephens
high master, St Paul's school
He said independent schools had no reason to complain they were unable to stimulate the brightest pupils using GCSE courses.

"Good teachers are not limited by exams syllabuses to stimulate very bright pupils."

The sentiment was echoed by Schools Secretary Ed Balls when he addressed the conference.

He said: "The idea that you have to look at private schools teaching the IGCSE if you want to see pupils being really stretched isn't just out of touch with the reality of our education system, but it also undermines the brilliant work being done by many of our best school leaders."

He said independent schools were perfectly at liberty to opt for IGCSEs and said they would always seek to differentiate themselves from the maintained sector.

But the evidence did not back the view that IGCSEs were a better qualification.

GCSEs 'pap'

Dr Dunford also criticised Dr Martin Stephens, the high master of St Paul's school in London, for what he called his "insulting remarks" about GCSEs.

Earlier this month, Dr Stephens was reported in the national press as saying GCSEs were "simply pap, they are baby food, they are examination rusks in too many subjects".

But Dr Stephens says he stands by his position.

"There is a widespread feeling, not just in independent schools but across the sectors and at university level, that we are not recognising the needs of the most gifted pupils in our schools," he told reporters.

"This is why I find the comments by John, much as I respect him, wholly negative. My riposte would be that actually I am trying to make things better.

"He is seeking to perpetuate a status quo which is not looking after the needs of the most gifted pupils across all sectors. Simply saying all is well in the garden is not actually going to be the answer."

He added: "I am deeply sorry that an issue of national importance for every child in the United Kingdom should be reduced to personalities. It is not the personalities, it's the principle that matters."

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