State school pupils could be 'shut out' of top universities as private schools avoid new GCSEs, warns headteacher

May Bulman
Independent schools across the country have refused to allow their pupils to sit the tougher exams which state schools have been required to set before their students this summer under government reforms: PA

State school pupils could be shut out of top universities next year as they struggle with new, harder GCSEs which private schools are avoiding, a headteacher has claimed.

Independent schools across the country have rejected the tougher exams state schools have been required to set before their students this summer.

Of 30 top private schools including Eton and Winchester, only one is putting all its students through the revamped GCSEs, while the rest are opting for the “easier” International GCSE.

Richard Cairns, headmaster of independent school Brighton College, said this could see state pupils ending up with worse exam results, which would “shut them out from top universities through no fault of their own”.

Unlike all his private school rivals, his school has chosen to do only GCSEs this summer.

“There are legitimate concerns that the new GCSE is now harder than the International GCSEs sat by many private schools… state school pupils may find themselves shut out from top universities through no fault of their own,” he told The Sunday Times.

Shaun Fenton, headmaster of Reigate Grammar School, a private school, who has chosen not to make his pupils sit the new GCSEs, told The Independent he had “sympathy” with his state school colleagues who had no choice in the matter.

“I understand the government wanting the state-regulated schools to do the exams the government has prepared for them, but I imagine there are an awful lot of state school leaders who say they would like the choice, and I would support them in that,” he said.

“I think the new GCSEs are going to prove to be good exams; I don’t think they are a disaster. But coming from the independent sector I think it would be good if all schools – states schools included – had more choice.”

He claimed private schools were “not wedded to IGCSEs because they are more likely to result in higher grades” but because they are a “tried and tested success story in the lives of the young people we teach”.

“They are not even included in league tables, so clearly this is not about showing off good results,” he added.

Cambridge International Education, which sets the IGCSE exams, said it committed to aligning the standard of the IGCSE with equivalent qualifications taken in England using “statistical evidence and comparability studies”.

Around half a million 15 and 16-year-olds are taking the new GCSEs, which have ushered in more difficult exam papers in most subjects, with a scale of 9 to 1 replacing the A* to G grading.

The dramatic reforms come as part of a government drive to improve schools’, pupils’ and employers’ confidence in the qualifications, ensuring that young people have the knowledge and skills needed to go on to work and further study.

A Department for Education spokesperson said: “We have reformed GCSEs to put them on a par with the best in the world so young people have the knowledge and skills they need to prepare them for future success and deliver the skills Britain needs to be fit for the future.

“These new qualifications provide more rigorous content, greater stretch for the highest performers and are better preparation for studying A-levels, which are the main qualifications universities use when considering offers.

“We no longer recognise IGCSEs in our league tables as they have not been through the same approval and quality control process as the new gold standard GCSEs.”

They highlighted that there were “record numbers” going to university, and that 18-year-olds from disadvantaged backgrounds were 50 per cent more likely to enter full-time higher education in 2017 than in 2009.

“Our reforms will continue to open up access to higher education, and enable students to make informed choices about what and where to study,” they added.