Because all university admissions staff are idiots, right?

Following last week’s GCSE results, it should surely be of concern to policy makers that almost all the schools announcing record scores are independent schools that in fact entered hardly any of their pupils for GCSEs. Instead, those schools stuck with international GCSEs, many of which still include the discredited coursework and are entirely unregulated by the standards watchdog, Ofqual.

I hope universities will take care to discriminate carefully in two years’ time between pupils who sat the new tough GCSEs — including youngsters in every state school — and those who did not.
Richard Cairns, Headmaster, Brighton College

27 thoughts on “Because all university admissions staff are idiots, right?”

  1. I tutored both EDEXCEL IGCSE Chemistry, Physics and Biology as well as the AQA GCSE Chemistry and Physics, if this headmaster thinks that the GCSE is more rigorous than the IGCSE he is an idiot.

    Just checked he brought in the trouser or skirt uniform to suit the mentally ill, oh and the letters after his name… MA Oxon!

  2. Hang on, wasn’t the claim that coursework was better for disadvantaged students? Now they say it is discredited?

    Anyway, living in HK where iGCSEs are an option in state supported (quasi-independent) schools, it is very clear that the iGCSE is a more difficult level than GCSE (but still easier than the local HK exams).

  3. I did Cambridge International O-Levels about 15 years ago now. No coursework, and way harder than contemporary GCSEs were.

    I then went to regular 6th form and did regular AS/A levels – I found that I had 75% of the AS level knowledge from doing the O-Level.

  4. Are these the new “tough” GCSEs where the maths paper needed the candidate to score a massive 15% to be awarded a “C” grade?

  5. Didn’t they just announce that they’d adjusted the grade boundaries so that the same proportion of candidates got all the various grades as last year under the old system? So the fact the exam was harder is irrelevant – a top grade A* under old would still be a number 9 or whatever number is the top grade now?

  6. I’ll second various others re coursework. It’s indeed true that not all IGCSE courses have coursework. Science and maths ones don’t.

    Baron Jackfield is correct – grade 4 (roughly a low C on the old system) can be achieved on the new maths papers with marks as low as 15-20%, if the boundaries are low that sitting. The papers are significantly harder than the old style ones in which a C might need more like 40% so if you look at what questions you’d expect a C grade candidate to get right then the boundaries are reasonably realistic – but I don’t like them being that low because it undermines trust in the qualification, it undermines someone’s confidence to be made to sit a paper they’ll score so badly in, and in practice these candidates are only being examined on a small number of questions (the rest of the paper is essentially off-limits to them) which means it is a less reliable test. The good solution would be for candidates expected to score a grade 4 or 5 to take an Intermediate tier paper that only offers middling grades, let’s say 3 through to 6. That way they’d be sitting an exam more attuned to their level, be judged on a more representative set of questions and face more serious grade boundaries.

    Jim is not quite right but mostly because the new and old grades don’t match up exactly – grades C to A* have now been stretched out over 4 to 9 (two extra grade) while grades F to D line up with grades 1 to 3. As a result they calibrated 4 to match a low grade C which results in lower boundaries, but 9 is intended to match only the higher subset of A* candidates and is now quite a significant achievement.

    TJ…. I never took my Oxbridge MA that I’m entitled to and I maintain that anyone who does, and particularly who splashes it behind their name, is a prat. I took a bachelors there so I have a BA. End of. Most Brits wouldn’t know of the peculiar Oxbridge system of buying your MA, the vast majority of my Yank and other overseas clients certainly wouldn’t, why should I effectively lie to them? So yes, prat. Particularly when he is talking about the worth and value of qualifications!!

  7. In addition, university admissions staff are already used to dealing with secondary education qualifications from over a hundred countries. They have software that does the grade conversions and equivalences for them. There’ll be absolutely no problem going to university with IGCSEs and universities will know perfectly well how their grades compare to the new 9-1 style GCSEs.

    And if they have an applicant from Bangladesh or Nigeria they’ll sigh with relief to see their school took IGCSE rather than the local equivalent – in the latter case they may then need further investigation as to whether the certificate is authentic etc.

  8. MyBurningEars said:
    “universities will know perfectly well how their grades compare to the new 9-1 style GCSEs”

    True, but the danger is that for political reasons they will assign them a lower value than they actually merit (which seems to be what Mr Cairns is calling for).

  9. Bloke in North Dorset

    I suppose it all depends on why we are examining people, do we want to know if they understand the subject or where they sit withing their cohort.

    When I did my Telecoms and Electronic Engineering HND at the School of Signals over 5 terms we had 4 x 3 Hour (minimum) exams at the end of each term.

    One of the first things we were told was that a pass mark of 40% showed 60% ignorance of the subject and that we would be expected to have an average of 50% across the fours exams and only one of them could be less than 50% but still had a 40% pass mark. (This was higher than BTEC set)

    In this case they wanted people who understood the subjects as opposed to us ranking us as we were then promoted.

    If the pass marks for school exams (where “C” of its equivalent is accepted as a pass) can be as low as 20% then they aren’t signalling to anyone that they know the subject, only where they sit in their cohort rankings. How useful is that to employers and universities?

  10. @ MBE
    I took my MA solely in order to be able to attend a Gaudy (that’s a reunion, including dinner, at one’s old college for anyone who attended a younger university). If you didn’t like your contemporaries, well that was bad luck – mine were nice and I like opportunities to see some of the again.
    Mr Cairns is trying to impress people with MA (Oxon): Brighton parents want to think that Tarquin and Elspeth will have a better chance of getting into Oxford if they attend Brighton College (which is a school not a college); when my then employers insisted that I must have a business card to impress people, HR/Marketing department wanted it to say BA, AIA – so I suggested it should say MA and expected an apology which never arrived (I didn’t mention at that stage my post-grad qualification about which they had been infiomed when I joined and waited in vain for them to ask so that I could tell them that only a D.Phil or D.Sc. was impressive).

  11. @ Baron Jackfield
    Well, that tells you what a “C” grade is worth. It is the grade in French that a boy with autism (so having some difficulties with language) moved at 15 from a special school, which didn’t do French, got in GCSE after nearly 5 terms in a mainstream school.
    Before 1997, it meant a decent performance in an examination – not any more.

  12. John 7:7, MBE,

    One “younger” university accidentally sent me a certificate for a PhD instead of the less senior degree I had actually earned. I still have it.

    It would be nice to, but I don’t claim it, as explaining how you came by two doctorates in the space of a year would be challenging.

  13. @john77

    I do understand there can be reasons for taking the MA, but it’s the “splashing it behind their name” to impress people I dislike. Someone who claims it for personal reasons and doesn’t use it to impress people, I have no problem with personally but still don’t like the system that dishes them out.

  14. @BIND

    Yes, that’s a useful distinction. GCSE is meant to assess people across a broad range of abilities, and if you hire someone with a C, or modern equivalent, you know you’re getting someone with the kind of skill levels as one might expect from a C-grade student, while if you hire a grade A student, you’re getting someone with a higher level of skills. If

    It’s not quite the same as taking a technical qualification which is certifying you as being capable/competent for doing a particular set tasks, and where higher pass-marks seem sensible!


    “True, but the danger is that for political reasons they will assign them a lower value than they actually merit (which seems to be what Mr Cairns is calling for).”

    Fear there’s some truth in this.

  15. @Fecks,

    Maybe I will consider the role of headmaster of Brighton College when I get fired from the current job. Unlike you, I’ve certainly no designs on the impending vacancy at St. Theresa’s independent state grammar school for girls (and boys).

    I do (really do) leave most of my (hard-earned, no MA Oxon/Cantab here), postnominals off my business card. Not only for reasons of space, but mainly for the reasons given by MBE.

  16. Maybe independent schools looked at the cost and impact and decided to take a slower approach to switching rather than following central govt. mandate

  17. @ MBE
    Yeah, I understand your point – the MA is a hangover from a system that no longer exists.
    On rare occasions I show off, most frequently in response to an inferior trying to talk down to me [someone can only be inferior by their own standards as all people are equal in the sight of God, but someone who thinks that she/he can patronise me on the basis of a third-class degree from a second-class university deserves to be retuned to reality].

  18. john 77
    “t someone who thinks that she/he can patronise me on the basis of a third-class degree from a second-class university”


  19. My boy has just finished doing Cambridge Pre U after doing IGCSE. His school (WInchester College) do not play the league table unlike Brighton College and chose IGCSE rather than the dumbed down GCSE because weirdly they think their job is to educate the children rather than get the most medals for the headmaster. BC, with lots of girls doubtless did well under the old coursework based model and as someone else noted the headmaster is doubtless getting his excuses in early.
    Winchester see little point in GCSE anyway given that all children now have to stay on until 18 and focus on Pre U as soon as practically possible. All GCSE does is determine whether you get into sixth form and what you are good at. This year we are being told by the vested interests that ‘private schools are taking the easier exams’ both in IGCSE and Pre U, when in effect the state system is merely catching up.

  20. @MarkT

    The idea the Pre U is an easier exam than A level is substantially more ludicrous than the claim that that the IGCSE is easier than the new 9-1 GCSE. For the top kids, I’d say a 9 on the new GCSE is more impressive than A* at IGCSE (even though that was itself more impressive than A* in the old domestic GCSE) and that the 9-1 exams may be more challenging than IGCSE (tho the IGCSE syllabus may actually have some harder topics, the 9-1 exams emphasise independent thought and problem solving a bit more). But the Pre U vs A-level debate is surely less nuanced – Pre U is seriously tough.

  21. @ Richard
    No, Tabs tend to have better manners: my wife knows/knew all the Trinity Maths Scholars in her year and two of them could be excused for patronising me but don’t.
    It’s people who are inherently mediocre but want to tell themselves and everyone else that they are superior.

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