Not all exams are cancelled: IGCSEs are going ahead, but is that fair? – by Sarah Rodrigues

11 Feb 2021

This article was published in The Telegraph on 2nd February 2021


As we’ve known for a few weeks now, teacher-assessed marks, rather than exams, are likely to form the basis of GCSE grades this year, but the situation around IGCSEs, the International General Certificate of Secondary Education, has been less clear.

According to a statement from provider Cambridge International, the exams are set to go ahead as planned – subject to that escape-hatch clause, “We will continue to monitor the situation very closely and keep our schools informed….”

In other words, things may well change. For the time being, though, most of the schools in the 160 countries with which Cambridge International works “are telling us they want to run exams in June 2021 and [we] expect to be able to do so, in line with guidance from their national and regional authorities. [Therefore] we expect exams to continue as planned where it is permitted and safe.”

Given that school closures and disruptions to learning have varied, from country to country, it seems reasonable that students who have been able to stay on top of their studies should not be affected by scenarios elsewhere. On the flip side, what does this mean for UK students?

“It’s likely that there will be questions about fairness,” acknowledges Head of Reigate Grammar, Shaun Fenton. “What normally happens is that students in the UK sit their exams at the same time (give or take time difference considerations). I understand the dilemma – and I think it’s really easy to criticise people making difficult decisions. But the truth is, we’re in really difficult times, and it’s hard to make decisions. The tragedy, of course, is that this doesn’t really help young people at the moment.”

One bittersweet pill of reassurance, for some, may be that despite being promoted across state and private sectors under ex-education secretary (2010-2104) Michael Gove, it is primarily only students at independent schools who undertake IGCSE exams – and such students are, it seems, on the receiving end of a delivery of routine and education far superior to what their public school counterparts currently enjoy.

Could this mean that such students are well-placed to sit the exams as normal? Or might their playing field still be crazily slanted, compared with students in countries where schools were not, generally speaking, closed?



“IGCSEs have stood the test of time,” says Fenton. “It’s a good qualification that works, and works well; in fact, you’ll find that many independent schools do a mix of IGCSEs and GCSEs, depending on the preferences that different departments have for the slightly different curriculum content.” At this point in time, he says, the more compelling issue for students is the one of uncertainty.

“The pandemic has snatched away an important life chance for many members of this generation,” he says. “They will feel that they’ve had the chance to demonstrate their brilliance – their chance to roll the dice in the exam room – stolen away from them. And, given that so much of an individual’s educational journey is geared towards this one result, this one certificate, this one grade  – that’s going to feel disconcerting, and difficult.”

He is hopeful, however, that this period of uncertainty may be a chance for us to “recalibrate our expectations a bit.”

“Maybe there’s an opportunity here to remind all of us that these young people were never going to be defined by their grades anyway,” he says. “Their quality of character and their personal attributes were always going to be the biggest influence on their lives. I think there’s a danger in believing that ‘well qualified’ means ‘well educated’ – because actually, being well educated is far more than being well qualified.”


Moral purpose

Indeed, he says – no grade, whether international or national, recognises “your ability to collaborate, your creative instincts, the quality of your friendships, your moral purpose and your sense of justice. There are so many things that make a great education.”

“Sometimes,” he continues, “you need an old paradigm to be shaken up for a better one to emerge in its place. If we can get a better balance of understanding – that education is more than just marks and qualifications; that it is personal qualities as well –  then, hopefully, something better might grow from this. The dark of the winter leads to the new life of spring – to a new dawn of optimism and energy. And with exams surrounded by uncertainty, what we have now is an opportunity to foster a more authentic and intrinsic motivation in our students  – a genuine passion for knowledge and understanding – than that of a grade.”


This article was published in The Telegraph on 2nd February 2021

Image: Children will still sit for exams if they are scheduled to take iGCSEs –  CREDIT: Getty Images Europe