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What’s going on with exams for home educators in 2021?

What’s the difference between GCSE and IGCSE – and are IGCSE exams cancelled in 2021?

Once again, the exam situation in England for GCSEs, AS and A levels in Summer 2021 is different to usual – and central to this for home educators is the difference between GCSE and IGCSE. Gavin Williamson’s announcement on the 6th of January that exams would be replaced with teacher-assessed grades threw home educators into a now-familiar panic – how will teacher-assessed grades work for those without teachers? And are IGCSEs cancelled too?

Last year things did not go well for home educators. The majority – including my eldest – were left without grades in the summer, and either took the exam in November or decided to defer until this year, some losing college or university places in the process. Those that did manage to get centre assessed grades often had to pay additional fees, or were graded much lower than they would likely have achieved in an exam. There were options that worked for some, and exam centres that did all they could, but for most it was pretty crushing. We’re still waiting on that crucial first GCSE result which was supposed to inform all our choices of how to handle the really important exams of this year and next.

The good news is that this year groups like HEQA have been briefing Ofqual and the exam boards on home educator’s needs (I’ve been playing my part in this and meeting with Pearson, Ofqual and the DfE as part of the process). This means the exam consultation, which runs from the 15th – 29th January 2021, is explicitly considering private candidates and has some options that may work better for us this year. If this affects you (even indirectly), do consider replying to the consultation and sharing your views. Anyone can contribute, and you don’t have to answer all the questions.

However, there are some key things to bear in mind about which qualifications this consultation is – and isn’t – considering.

The announcement and consultation only applies to English qualifications. Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland have their own qualification systems. Wales and Scotland have already announced that they will not be holding normal exams this summer, and are still working out their own arrangements too – and Wales have said they will include private candidates in this, though with no details so far. However many home educators travel to exam centres in England in order to sit the more-accessible English GCSEs, and so this is relevant for them too.

There’s a different consultation for BTECs and other qualifications (including Functional Skills). That one is here. Most of these options are not available to home educators other than through a college, but some – such as Functional Skills – are commonly used.

Neither consultation is considering IGCSEs, or International A levels. One of the key differences between GCSEs and IGCSEs is that Ofqual do not regulate IGCSEs (or International A levels, which are only available from the CAIE board). Therefore Ofqual, or the Department for Education, cannot specify the arrangements for these exams – that is a decision for the exam boards that offer them, Pearson (Edexcel) and CAIE (Cambridge). It is possible that the boards will end up adopting similar arrangements, but they don’t have to, and so far IGCSE exams are not cancelled.

So how are GCSEs and IGCSEs different?

International GCSEs are primarily designed to offer a qualification to the international market of a recognised standard – for instance international schools or online schools. They are also used by private schools around the world, including in the UK. They are designed to be of a similar standard to the English GCSEs in terms of difficulty and breadth of content, and develop similar skills to the equivalent GCSE, but they will not cover precisely the same content and topics. They are widely recognised by sixth forms and universities as being of the same value, and count towards funding requirements for 16-19 courses. In terms of future progression, an IGCSE works in the same way as a GCSE.

However, as they are not regulated by Ofqual and are no longer taken by UK state schools, they can have separate arrangements. Normally, these are small differences, that make it easier for students in different situations to use them. One of the main ones is that they are less likely to have required practical or coursework elements (though some still do). This makes them easier for home educators to access, as exam centres just need to provide the exam, and they don’t have to certify that science practicals have been completed, for example. You still need to learn how to do these as they’re assessed in the exam (in the same way as GCSE science practicals now are) – but for GCSE the exam centre needs to have proof that you’ve done them, which normally means they all have to have been completed under the supervision of a teacher or tutor working with the exam centre. This massively increases the cost and complexity for everyone; with IGCSEs, the practicals are still part of the course content, but the exam centre isn’t responsible for making sure they’ve been done – that’s up to you along with the rest of the teaching, and the exam will assess what the student can show they have learnt. Home educators usually take a mix of both IGCSEs and GCSEs. 

So in Summer 2021, the exam boards can also decide that they will stick with exam assessment, even if GCSEs do something different – and so far this is the plan. As of now (January 19th 2021), IGCSE exams are still going ahead in the UK – with the previously decided modifications which have reduced some content and will give advance notice of topics to be featured in the exams. This is a great relief for many home educators, who still have the option of the reliable exam they’ve been working towards, instead of the unknown possibilities and difficulties of other assessments. Some families are choosing to switch from GCSE specifications to IGCSE specifications to access the exam option. If you’re thinking of this, do look at the specifications very carefully before deciding, and bear in mind that current plans may yet change. Some subjects are similar enough that it’s not too much work to switch; others are very different and the work done so far would not help towards a different qualification.

Unfortunately, it’s not quite that clear cut. There are also unknowns about the public health situation in the summer. All the indications look good that by June, exams – socially distanced by design – will be perfectly safe for the majority of candidates, but there are some families with particular health concerns who won’t feel comfortable travelling to an exam centre. This is worse for home educating families, some of whom need the whole family to travel cross country, using public transport and hotels, in order to be able to access a centre. And the events of the last year have shown us that things can change suddenly, so no-one can make a cast iron guarantee that exams in June will be possible at the moment.

Some exam centres are also not sure of arrangements, and are deciding (or have already decided) that it’s not worth the hassle to support private candidates this year – there’s nothing that guarantees a private candidate will be able to find a place to sit an exam that they’re ready for. It’s even harder to find a centre willing to support alternative arrangements. Those that require access arrangements are finding things almost impossible.

There’s also a question about whether teacher assessed grades will turn out to be an ‘easier option’ than a regular exam, or more suitable for some candidates who have been disrupted due to the pandemic. There may yet be pressure for IGCSEs to adopt a similar system for GCSEs. It would be unlikely to happen everywhere – many of the international candidates have no issues at all with exams as normal this year – but there may end up being a different system within the UK to what happens internationally; or there may be two options for everyone.

For now, home educators are still feeling in limbo, with exam deadlines approaching, exam centres withdrawing support, and alternative arrangements unknown. It looks more likely that options will be found this year – but decisions need to be made without knowing what those options will be.

So what can you do if your home educated child was planning on an exam this year?

  • Hang tight. Keep on working. Chances are there will be some sort of assessment that works for many, around the normal time.
  • Respond to the consultation,even if your plans are for IGCSEs, and let them know what you need for your child to have as good a chance at reflecting their skills as any other.
  • Be careful about decisions like switching to IGCSE. Make sure you know the differences in specifications, and be aware that while IGCSEs are currently going ahead, that might still change.
  • Talk to your exam centre, or try and find one if you haven’t already, but be aware that they don’t know details yet either. This is a stressful time for them too, and we need to keep relationships positive not just for this year, but for the home educated children in the many years ahead who will also need exam centres.

Most of all, remember that your child has you on their side, and while these qualifications are very important, they are not everything. Work towards the solution they need – but keep smiling and supporting them too, and remember there are always options, even if they’re not ones you really want to have to take. Whatever happens, you’ll find a way.

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