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By Andrew Stone
Printed in Practical Homeschooling #50, 2003.

What American homeschoolers need to know about the largest examination and curriculum system in the world.
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Andrew Stone

If you discovered a high school program in which teenagers were a year or more advanced than those in the USA, which was accredited by the government, which was in the top five in the world, which was internationally recognized, which was easily accessible by independent learning, which was used by millions of teenagers, and which was very much cheaper than U.S. programs, would you be dreaming?

No, you would be studying for the British GCSE (General Certificate of Secondary Education) or IGCSE (International GCSE) High School examinations.

The British GCSE and IGCSE program is the largest in the world. With every U.K. teenager in the system and with 55 countries throughout the world using a variant of the program or directly involved in it through IGCSE, it is also the most widely recognized program in the world.

Started over 50 years ago by the British universities to test applicants in much the same way as the GED or SAT systems in the USA, the GCSE has had 50 years to develop and mature into the world's most sophisticated examination system. Thanks to this curriculum standard, the U.S. Fulbright Institute candidly tells British parents to expect their children at 16 to be at least a year more advanced than their U.S. peers. (See their site at www.fulbright.co.uk/eas/.)

Here's further proof that students who work towards passing their GCSEs perform better than students who follow the typical U.S. middle-school and high-school course of study. In the recent OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) international education tests, designed to test the knowledge and skills of 15-year-olds in the 32 top industrialized countries, the U.K. was in the top five on literacy, math, and scientific ability along with Canada, Ireland, New Zealand, and Australia - all countries strongly influenced by the British program. Out of the 32 countries participating, the U.S. scored below average on all measures of literacy, math, and scientific ability, ranking twelfth or worse on all measures. This was a massive international test, in which 265,000 students from 32 countries took part, and the top experts in assessment from many countries were involved, so you can be confident the results reflect the sad reality of USA schooling compared to the rest of the world. For the full details, see www.pisa.oecd.org.

The GCSE program is closely monitored by the U.K. government and is delivered through both national and international examination centers. Some countries such as Egypt and Jordan integrate it into their education systems. Others such as Australia and Singapore have adapted the system to their own requirements. It is a system that is flexible enough to permit testing by continuous assessment or through "all or nothing" examinations - and it can offer examinations in a huge range of subjects.

IGCSE (the international version of the U.K. examinations from the Cambridge University Board) alone offers 60 study subjects. Other boards such as Edexecel offer many hundreds more. Imagine if you could be tested on Mandarin Chinese or Urdu as part of GED. You can in the GCSE system!

As the system operates on such a vast scale there are huge economies in the production of teaching materials. You can get GCSE subject tests and exams on CD-ROM for as little as $10 and full subject curricula for $30. The U.K. government teaching and advisory material for GCSE is in the public domain and freely available online. Check out the material on the BBC web site at www.bbc.co.uk/learning/.

So how does this affect the American homeschooler? If you are interested in IGCSE you have to understand some of the more important features of the program.

The main difference between the U.K. GCSE and U.S. high school is that in the GCSE program the testing is by independent examination. The examiner won't even know what country you come from. It doesn't matter how you learn - as long as you can pass the examination, you get the award. Your result won't depend on whether the teacher likes you, whether you are popular in class, or whether you know how to copy assignments. Either you can cut it on the examination day or you can't.

The nature of the system is that it demands high level literacy skills - you have to answer questions, at length and in writing, explaining your reasoning to a total stranger. British teenagers are continuously tested on their question-answering ability, and the development of this skill is integral to preparing yourself for the exam.

Another feature of the system is that it concentrates on skills and specific abilities. Where a U.S. student might study for a credit in "Science," a GCSE student will have to sit an exam in either Physics, Chemistry, or Biology. You can see the course and examination criteria for IGCSE Biology at www.cie.org.uk. Fulfilling the course requirements and passing the exam gives an indication to a potential employer that a student is capable of doing a job in a biology laboratory.

Different examination boards - and there are at least seven - offer different curricula with different requirements. All are expected to reach the same U.K. government standards.

The gap between the U.S. high school diploma and the GCSE is enormous. In the U.K. the GCSE is an "intermediate" examination taken at 16, some two years before British students attend college, and yet it is equivalent to what is expected of American high-school graduates. A British student would have to move from the GCSE to "A" level, another two-year program, before being accepted to a university. [This is why even the best American high-school graduates are usually not qualified to enter universities in Europe - or for that matter in Asia, Latin America, or Africa. - Ed.] IGCSE is not for those who want a "soft" option!

The GCSE system is not school-based. It combines the features of GED, SAT, and the U.S. high school diploma. You can take the examinations at any stage in life. If high school is a disaster, you can catch up later in life, earning exactly the same credits as you would have in high school, and it makes no difference to the value people place on your achievement.

In the past it has proved difficult to offer the GCSE program to the U.S. educational system because, without a dramatic improvement in teaching quality, U.S. students would have been unable to pass the examinations - they would be too difficult. However, a number of schools in Virginia and Florida have moved over entirely to a British structured educational program. See www.potomacpanthers.org.

As these schools become IGCSE examination centers it will become possible for homeschoolers and independent learners to take the examination in these states. The difficulty for the U.K. examination boards is that they doubt the ability of those brought up in the U.S. education system to adjust to the heavier demands of IGCSE. When introduced in Potomac High School, the program required huge amounts of teacher training to get teachers to raise standards. It's doing well but has yet to enter the ferociously competitive "league tables" game that all British and international schools using GCSE compete in. (See www.dfes.gov.uk/performancetables.)

The IGCSE system will only be made available to homeschoolers when they demand it and when they can prove they can pass the examination. I am working right now with the Scottish Qualifications Authority who run the GCSE examinations in Scotland, putting forward the idea that the GCSE program be delivered through distance learning from individual schools. Thus a student in the USA would sign up to the programme by enrolling as a "distance student" of a Scottish High School who would administer the teaching and the examination. More on this in upcoming issues!

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