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UK high school exam reform could create stumbling blocks for international students

Comprehensive reforms to the UK’s national GCSE and A Level exams could create stumbling blocks for international high school students and could even mean some come to the UK later, independent schools have warned.

Photo: Bishopstrow College.

“The A Levels are holistic and they will catch out many of our international students”

Reforms to the exams, taken in years 11 and 13, were first introduced in September 2015 but are being phased in incrementally. The first exams following the new courses for GCSE English Literature, English Language and Mathematics, along with 13 A Level subjects, will be taken this summer.

The reformed syllabuses introduce new and more demanding content, with a greater reliance on analytical skills, and abolish the modular format used up to now.

“I don’t think that many international parents want to send their 13-year-olds abroad”

Speaking at the British Association for Independent Schools with International Students conference last week in Birmingham, Lorraine Atkins, principal of Bishopstrow College, which prepares students for study at boarding schools in the UK and overseas, explained the changes are driven by “universities [that] want a more evaluative, a more critical thinking student”.

In order to keep up with the tougher curriculum, many schools are now beginning to teach the GCSE syllabus a year early – effectively turning a two-year course into a three-year one.

This means international students arriving in year 10 to sit the GCSE course could miss out on critical teaching that has already begun in year 9.

One solution would be for parents to send their students a year earlier, but an extra year of fees is a significant financial sacrifice, and it would mean children travelling at a younger age.

“I don’t think that many international parents want to send their 13-year-olds abroad, so I don’t see that that’s going to happen,” Caroline Nixon, general secretary at BAISIS, told The PIE News.

“I don’t think they’re going to come in year 9 in droves,” remarked another educator, who predicted that some of the students who now transfer from his school’s overseas middle school branch in year 10 will opt to remain at the middle school instead due to the changes.

Overseas franchises are likely to benefit from the changes, agreed Nixon: “People will perhaps send their children to an international British curriculum school in their own country so they don’t have to go halfway across the world.”

To lessen the possibility of students remaining overseas, schools are likely to develop pre-sessional summer courses to help foreign pupils entering at grade 10 catch up with their domestic classmates, educators at the conference predicted.

The new GCSE and A Level curricula place a heavier focus on critical thinking and a greater reliance on exams, rather than coursework, to allow for easier benchmarking of UK schools internationally.

But this “one size fits all” approach is likely to create problems for some groups of students who typically perform less well in written exams, such as those with special educational needs or foreign students, said Beth Reynaert, academic manager, exams officer and chemistry teacher at Pangbourne College in Reading.

“Our experience is that international students are very good at learning and remembering and less good at the analytical skills,” she said.

“There could be a lot of competition from pathway providers because of A level reform… or maybe a lot of schools opening foundation courses”

Atkins at Bishopstrow echoed that international students may find demonstrating these skills challenging. “The A Levels are holistic and they will catch out many of our international students,” she forecasted.

Another challenge is that exam questions for both the A Level and the GCSE will be laden with culturally specific real-world problems for which international students may lack awareness, delegates said.

One example given was an exam case study about John Lewis, which could confuse international students unfamiliar with the department store.

“In subjects like business studies or geography or history, there are a lot more culturally loaded images which are going to be a problem for our students,” summed up Nixon.

So significant are the challenges for international students in the early tranches of these reforms, one delegate argued that “many more [students] will than in the past become disenfranchised with that system”.

The move could also enhance encroaching competition from the private pathway sector, the delegate said. Students may drop out at the end of year 12 after finding their first year of A Level study “challenging or not just for them and just move on” to a foundation course instead, he predicted, which would allow them to enter university without having taken A level exams.

In fact, both dedicated foundation providers and independent high schools could capitalise on the growing demand for new pathways into university, Atkins suggested: “I think that there could be a lot of competition [from pathway providers] because of A level reform… or maybe a lot of schools opening foundation courses.”

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