Education Quandary

'More and more private schools are doing international GCSEs. If they are so good, will children, like mine, at state schools miss out?
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The Independent Online

Hilary's advice

Private schools are market-driven and always on the lookout for things that will prove to parents just how much better they are than state schools. They have a vested interest in keeping clear blue water between the two sectors, and a different exam system is a good way of doing that. So your anxiety about whether your children will be less well qualified to compete for university places and jobs is exactly the feeling they want you to have.

But teachers in both maintained and independent schools have long been questioning the rigour of ordinary GCSEs. They have queried the content of exam syllabuses, the emphasis on coursework, and the way in which exams are marked. Schools with a lot of highly able pupils tend to be the most worried.

International GCSEs are said to be more challenging, more like A-levels, which is why around 200 independent schools have taken them up. But government curriculum experts have compared the English, maths, French and science exams, and concluded that not only are the international GCSEs sometimes less wide-ranging than ordinary GCSEs, but that in some areas they also seem easier.

In English, for example, international GCSE students don't have to study Shakespeare, and in maths they can use a calculator for all their papers. In some other subjects, though, the international GCSEs did appear to be harder. The Government is looking into whether state schools should be allowed to teach the exams but, as this report shows, no exam system is without its problems.

Readers advice

This parent is not worried about exams, but whether independent school pupils have an advantage over her kids. I think they do - not in the exams they take, but in things like being in smaller classes, and having teachers who have got time for individuals. This attention seems to give children the kind of confidence that allows them to go out into the world and do well. Teachers in state schools can't give pupils the same input. They are drowning in paperwork, and often have to deal with children who don't want to be in the classroom at all.

Sara Nettingham, Norwich

I teach GCSE history and religious studies. My pupils enjoy what they learn and do well in getting into the universities of their choice. I don't understand this parent's worries. Like other teachers, I could find plenty to criticise in the syllabuses I follow, but nothing on a scale to make me want to switch to another system.

Andrew Fairburn, Berkshire

There are problems with GCSE exams, but no other exams will be much better, and I can't imagine universities and employers are going to be all that impressed with a different set of qualifications at this level. They probably won't even notice! You should stop wondering if the grass is greener elsewhere, and support your children in the exams they are taking.

Laura Longley, Northamptonshire

Next Week's Quandary

Dear Hilary

Can you help us? Our daughter and son-in-law have three children, ranging from a newborn to a five-year-old. She has asked, as part of her Christmas present, for a good book on parenting. She seems to be struggling to juggle work and home, and to cope with the stresses and strains of all the different demands on her time.

Send your letters or quandaries to Hilary Wilce, to arrive no later than Monday 11 December to 'The Independent', Education Desk, Independent House, 191 Marsh Wall, London E14 9RS; or fax: 020-7005 2143; or e-mail: Please include your postal address. Readers whose letters are printed will receive a Berol Combi Pack of a cartridge pen, handwriting pen and ink eraser.