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Commentary: The death of GCSE... or not!
Published on September 28, 2012 Email To Friend    Print Version

By Damian Wilson

The UK coalition government several days ago announced plans to scrap the General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE) and its international counterpart, the iGCSE, by 2015, with first exams set to take place by 2017. GCSE and its exams have been in place since the 1980s and have long been recognized as a great example of assessment of high school students both in the UK and internationally. However, within recent years UK students have been losing ground to their European and international counterparts in GCSE qualifications.

Damian Wilson was born and raised in Grand Turk. He attended the TCI Community College and graduated in 2007 with an Associate Degree in Electrical and Electronic Engineering Technology. He was the host of Radio Turks & Caicos Good Morning Man Show from 2006 to 2012. He is currently studying Communications at the University of Buckingham in the United Kingdom.
The GCSE, also in recent times, has been plagued with problems and scandal in the UK -- many say the exam system has narrowed the UK national curriculum, it hasn't addressed the disparity of success between rich and poor students, that GCSE modules are not a proper assessment, that it forces "teaching to the test" - according to Michael Gove, Education Secretary, scraping the GCSE is the end of "dumbing down" and GCSE was a "race to the bottom."

Gove and Deputy PM Nick Clegg made the joint announcement and heralded it as a move to keep the Conservatives' promise to create a more rigorous exam system [similar to that of the O-Level] and keeping the Lib Dems promise of greater social equality in education. GCSE/iGCSE is to be replaced with the new English Baccalaureate Certificate (EBaccs) -- first in the core subjects such as math, English and sciences, then later in all other subject areas.

However, this move by the UK coalition government has drawn significant criticism from the opposition Labour Party and even from many Conservatives and Liberal Democrat MPs. The interesting thing about this new qualification system of EBaccs is that it hasn't been fully explained how it will work and there is already a baccalaureate, the International Baccalaureate (IB) -- administered by the International Baccalaureate (headquartered in Geneva, Switzerland), which is a branch of UNESCO -- that is recognized by universities in the UK and around the world.

Many critics of the EBaccs have claimed that it does not address the needs of Britain in a modern world, it does not take into account the needs of non-academic skills that are necessary, it is a return to the early 1980s, nor does it address the issue of a two-tier education system in the UK.

Now with all that said, many may ask what does that have to do with students in the Turks and Caicos making their way to take exams at the end of their secondary school journey? In an interview with Mr Robert Newman, Examinations Officer, TCIG Education Department, he explained that the TCIG is well aware of the situation and has looked into its impact on TCI students and have come to a sound conclusion that this move by the UK government will have very little effect on TCI students [in public schools].

According to Newman, "the uptake for GCSE isn't there... and many students opt to take CXC." Newman also went on to explain that "with CXC gaining more international recognition and the TCI's status as an associate member of CARICOM, it only makes sense for us to push the CXC. However, this move by the UK may affect some private schools."

Mr Newman's statement that this move by the UK government may affect some private schools is correct -- the British West Indies Collegiate (BWIC), in Providenciales, is the only sixth form secondary institution in the TCI and its students do sit the iGCSE. Like the TCIG, British West Indies Collegiate staff appears to be well on top of this matter. In speaking with Mrs Sylvie Wigglesworth, principal of BWIC, she expressed concerns at a lack of clarity in this proposal and the financial, administration and educational impact to schools by this decision of the UK government.

Mrs Wigglesworth drew attention to the fact that this move is a complete 180 degree turn by the Cameron-Clegg administration from their original plans upon taking office in 2010, expressed in their white paper, and that their original plan was to use the iGCSE as a model for the GCSE and that these qualifications would help to support the EBaccs. As a matter of fact, section 4.24 of The Importance of Teaching - The Schools White Paper 2010 expressly says:

"The English Baccalaureate will be only one measure of performance, and should not be the limit of schools’ ambitions for their pupils. Schools will retain the freedom to innovate and offer the GCSEs, iGCSEs and other qualifications which best meet the needs of their pupils. Pupils will of course be able to achieve vocational qualifications alongside the English Baccalaureate. With the proper structures in place through the reform of the National Curriculum and the introduction of the English Baccalaureate schools will have the freedom and the incentives to provide a rigorous and broad academic education."

As one can see this is not the case with this new coalition proposal. "I think it will have massive financial impact on schools should it be implemented in terms of professional training and development for teachers, in terms of investment in supplies, textbooks and resources of any kind...," said Wigglesworth, "...I don't understand why they don't go look at systems that already work."

Many critics in the UK have expressed this same sentiment; there are already examination systems that universities already recognise as opposed to complete replacement by the new EBaccs. Mrs Wigglesworth explained that rather than switching to this new English Baccalaureate (EBaccs), BWIC would switched to a system that is already proven and well established; that system being the International Baccalaureate (IB).

When asked if this move to the IB would have significant financial implications for BWIC, Mrs Wigglesworth said, "Yes, it would because it is an expensive program to run... but if we have to invest money we would rather invest it in a program that has proven success of leading students to university because that is what we're doing in the TCI.... and in order to do this we need a solid examination system in place."

I also asked if this would cause an increase in student fees and Mrs Wigglesworth expressed that this is certainly possible, especially for those taking the IB, but they haven't examined the whole picture as yet because most international schools [like BWIC] who offer the IB also offer another examination system for those who wouldn't be able to take the IB. Mrs Wigglesworth assured me that BWIC is looking into the feasibility of switching to the IB or any other examination system, as the best interest of their students is at stake.

So should parents of BWIC worry about higher fees? I wouldn't worry if I were them, as this proposal is just that, simply a proposal. This education reform is planned to begin this year in the UK but not fully implemented until 2015 and no exams until 2017 -- by which time the UK will be going through an election in 2015, with many students and their parents already frustrated and upset over problems in the UK education system, including the increase in university fees, so it is unlikely that the Conservatives or coalition will win the next election.

I suggest that parents of student attending BWIC continue to watch developments in the UK but speak with Mrs Wigglesworth and her team, who certainly appear to be ahead of this crucial education matter.
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