Sunday, 9 June 2013

Alternatives to IGCSEs.

Sitting in my kitchen last week drinking tea with a home schooling friend, the topic of alternatives to IGCSEs etc came up. It ignited the interest I had always felt in regards to studying and learning and I could vaguely remember (naively?) saying none of my children would ever take GCSEs/IGCSEs! And here we are a few years on and our second child is currently sitting two more exams in Latin and Maths!

So what changed? My friend and I were agreeing that the 'peer pressure' (yes! it even exists among home educators!) of many of their friends settling down to the exam courses was a factor, plus of course the age old argument that they are stepping stones for attaining any means of FE (further education).

This is most definitely true..after all once I'd contemplated it what would they actually *do* if they weren't now studying towards exams?
Our chat then wandered into other avenues...of course there are many other ways of learning and qualifications but not many people are aware of them.

For a student who may not be very academically minded but would like to fill their day with learning, there is the option of the BTEC qualification. Level 1 is a 'broad introductory level designed for those not able to achieve grades A*-C at GCSE'.

There are a wide range of subjects - art and design, child care, music or engineering....

Level 2 (14yrs-16ys) is equivalent to GCSEs and again the range of  subjects is impressive, even including fish husbandry and horticulture- unusual!

BTECs can be studied at home so quite accessible for the home schooler or at a college and once one has attained Levels 1 and 2 (I'm not sure if one needs to do both) then they can go on to 3 which are recognised by Universities and are equivalent to A levels.

An Art BTEC, for example, could be studied alongside a few IGCSEs too as it demands a couple of days in college allowing the student enough time to cover more studies if they wish.

The beauty of home education is that studying is done in the child's time- when the child is ready, not the school. Each child is different and the Mother will know how much her child can manage, unlike a school. Home education also allows the child to study over a longer period of time, ie many home educators will sit IGCSEs over three to four years, so it is flexible and less stifling.
Of course all this is dependent upon what the student actually would like to study in the future. Medicine demands top grades in the sciences and so IGCSEs followed by three to four A levels is imperative.

Do our children *need* GCSEs/other qualifications to succeed in life? Almost certainly not. I still stand by this yet I do also wonder what I would replace their studies with in reality. Does not sitting IGCSEs lower their chances to do A levels, or go to University? Possibly not, but I still am not courageous enough (yet) to take that chance!


  1. I think that the need or otherwise for GCSE/IGCSEs depends partly on the subject you wish to pursue. From speaking to various people working in the halls of academe, there does seem to be a sharp distinction between humanities and sciences in terms of what institutions are looking for. So, in science or medicine, Unis do seem to to want excellent grades as proof that a student is capable of understanding, mastering and applying the material (this seems especially true in medicine where a great deal of material needs to be memorised and examined). In the humanities, in contrast, interviewers are more often looking for evidence of an ability to think well, to be open to using the intellect in specific ways...corrigibility!! In these cases, top notch GCSE results may simply show evidence of being well trained to answer questions in a particular way - we all know that high levels of intellectual endeavor are neither required nor encouraged at GCSE level. It's a tragedy that institutions like Oxford and Cambridge seem to be relying so much on GCSE grades in humanities subjects when they are often not an accurate indicator of true intellectual ability. I have come across several cases of young people with less than stellar GCSE grades gaining top Uni places because their interviewers have had the vision to see beyond the grades. So, there is hope that not everything relies on those grades, moreso in humanities than sciences. But then (it may sound controversial) it is easier to gain top grades in sciences than arts - once you have mastered the material and the processes, you can be pretty sure of passing and passing well - it is very objective. In humanities, being more subjective by nature, those top grades can prove more elusive.

  2. PS the above is a response to your question in the final paragraph - sorry not to have responded about BTECs etc!

  3. Absolutely!
    This post was more about alternatives to the IGCSEs rather than not needing them to get into University. There is the rare story of a home educated student who has gained a place at Oxford with absolutely no qualifications of any kind. Yet these stories tend to leave out the crux - the child probably had read and translated into Latin 'Divine Comedy' at 5yrs or has an O.U degree in quantum physics!

    It is a tragedy that the top Unis depend upon excellent GCSE grades (and quantity too!) especially as most Unis don't even interview...this really is a disappointment as it shows pure reliance upon a piece of paper with a set of results...

  4. More on the subject of BTECs, in these days of economic austerity (and especially for our young catholic men who may be needing to support a large family at some point), there is something to be said for considering doing both academic and practical qualifications. If a student can find something flexible enough, this can be done. I know several young people who are studying with the OU and also dong something practical 'on the side'.
    Our son is planning this route - his OU degree is being done in his own time and he will hopefully sign up for a BTEC or some other kind of course in something skills based (free as he's only 16).

    It's a shame that in the UK we continue to make this sharp distinction between people who have brains and go down an academic route and people who have some kind of crafting skill and (by implication) have fewer brains. It impoverishes our provision of skills-based craft practitioners/artisans. I read somewhere that in Switzerland (I think!) only about 12% of people go to Uni; many many more go into skills/crafts but they are much more highly respected. Look at how carpenters, blacksmiths and the like struggle to make a living because they are undervalued. Why must people insist that if our children are bright they must go to uni - and feel they would be 'wasted' if they go into nursing, or carpentry etc.?

    The masses of UK graduates either unemployed or working at levels way below their qualification level bears eloquent testimony to the imbalance we have created by pushing far too many people into academia (not to mention impoverishing our academic life at the same time by swamping our institutions of higher ed with people who may be bright and clever but are not necessarily 'academic' - and changing the courses to suit).

    Our own children look at us (unskilled Oxford graduates struggling to make ends meet) and there a better way?

  5. I'm almost sure there is a preferable way, hence the mention of vocational, practical style courses such as BTECs, or O.U (if one can afford it nowadays!)
    You're right, it doesn't mean people are less 'brainy' if they choose a more practical type of course..and anyway as I once read somewhere (or was it my husband?!) working with one's hands/body rather than one's mind allows the mind to contemplate on more spiritual and benevolent matters!

    Another point to ponder on is this desperate need now to go to University (what for? the 'experience'? the piece of paper?) and basically any Uni and any degree will do! Not so, as as you rightly state, there is a alarmingly high rate if unemployment among graduates, some of them not even utilising their degrees.

    Ben is seriously considering the RAF or police still...we're currently discussing the true benefits of a degree as opposed to going into a more vocational course or even straight into either force? Where would his skills and gifts be best employed? It does make one wonder!