Summer has arrived, and fifteen to sixteen year-olds all over the UK are celebrating the end of the dreaded GCSE year. Having recently completed my exams, I look back and all I can remember is stress and panic.
But at my school, we did not do regular GCSEs. IGCSEs were compulsory, and I was always less than confident I would reach the high standards they demanded. Now that I look back, I can't help but wonder if I would have been better off taking the normal GCSEs.
IGCSEs (International General Certificate of Secondary Education) were devised by Cambridge University to give students a step up to their A-level curriculum, by being more demanding. Unlike GCSEs, IGCSEs are not organised in modules. There is only one exam at the end of the entire course and there is no coursework.
The new education secretary, Michael Gove, has said that, from September, state schools will have the option of taking IGCSEs. So all those who excel at science subjectswill have a chance to take science IGCSEs. However, many private schools do not give students the choice to take the normal GCSE. It seems to me, whatever school you might attend, you should have the choice.
I have never been good at science. My reports trumpeted my successes in English and the arts, but my science comments were always the same: "tries hard" and "Emily sets high standards for herself and is working hard to fulfil them". It was the teachers' way of saying science was clearly not for me.
At the end of year nine, my year group was divided into four for science: from division 1 (for those who almost did not need a teacher and would take the prestigious Triple Award IGCSE) to division 4. I was in division 3, with two of my closest friends. Even at that level, we soon discovered just how difficult science could be. Chemistry was a foreign language to me, as dull as it was confusing. Whenever anyone said the word "hydrochloric", my brain would switch off. And let's just say that word was said a lot.
IGCSE simply did not suit me. It was incredibly detailed, and meant for those with a huge capacity for learning names, theories and diagrams off by heart. Whereas, when I look at GCSE higher science past papers, the questions make perfect sense to me. Most are multiple choice, and they ask questions that are relevant to everyday life. The subject matter is still challenging, but the multiple choice gives students so much more chance of achieving marks.
The IGCSE is perfect for the science geniuses out there – our future doctors, technicians, dentists. But what I would find more useful is the application of science in everyday life. For example, if I was to invest in a garden arch, I would have no idea what it should be made of. If I bought a spoon, which would be more sustainable, one made out of plastic, metal or wood? Having completed my IGCSEs, I can honestly say I have no idea, but it is topics like these that GCSE covers, along with: How would one make PVC stiffer? How long ago was the solar system formed? How does the sun generate its energy? I for one would feel extremely clever to know the answers to these. They are so much more relevant to me than knowing exactly how I digest my food. Digestion happens to me with or without my knowledge of its exact science, but if I set off to buy that garden arch, it would clearly end in a domestic disaster.
I think it is underestimated just how much presentation can help comprehension. The way GCSEs are laid out immediately calm me. Large images jump out at me, making me think that science is accessible and out there all the time, uniting the world in its complexity. The multiple choice gives me confidence. Instead of finding myself gazing down at a diagram of the heart agonizing over the names of its component parts, I would have been thinking on my feet.The two friends in my division, when it came down to the exams, seemed to give up. I kept working, determined not to be an underdog. But we all found the IGCSE impossible to keep up with, simply because we were fated not to be good at science.
I believe that if we had taken GCSEs, we would all have done well. And there would have been things in the examinations that we would find relevant in the future.
With the IGCSEs, we all knew that as soon as our exams were done, science was over forever. So what was the point?
A guide for parents for IGCSE Computer Science
Are you a home educating parent? Do you want to know all about IGCSE Computer Science ? Then this guide is for you.
I teach this subject and get asked a lot of questions about it, so I’ve put together this handy guide so you don’t have to trawl through lots of websites. If I’ve missed something you want to know then please do let me know. My contact details are at the bottom. I’m happy to help.
This guide assumes you know nothing about IGCSE’s and that you are finding out about them because you or your child is interested in computers, you home educate and you want to know the details of this exam. Note, if you want to know about IGCSE ICT, there is a separate blog post about that subject coming soon.
IGCSE? What does the “I” mean?
I is for International. IGCSE’s are used in many private schools instead of GCSE’s. They are available to anyone who wants to sit them, and are often taken by home educated children because there is no coursework involved – just exams. Coursework is very hard to get assessed if you are home educated.
Which exam board is IGCSE Computer Science with?
Cambridge International Examinations (CIE) are the only board who currently offer Computer Science or anything like it.
*UPDATE April 2017* Edexcel have released an IGCSE Computer Science course which will first sit in 2019. I will not be offering this course because it has a practical exam (on a computer) and it will be very difficult for parents to find an exam centre that will offer this.
What about the new 9-1 grading system for the IGCSE?
From 2019 CIE will let you choose whether your IGCSE Computer Science exam paper is graded A-E or under the new 9-1 system. The syllabus is 100% the same for both exams, you just use different exam codes when booking the exam with the exam centre depending on which marking system you’d like.
What is in the syllabus?
The syllabus is here on the CIE website. But briefly, it covers:
- Binary and Hexadecimal numbers
- Internet and Communication Technology
- Logic gates and circuits
- Operating systems and computer architecture
- Input and Output Devices
- Memory and Storage
- High and Low level Programming Languages
- Security and Ethics
- Problem-solving and Design
- Pseudocode and Flowcharts
- Programming Concepts
- Data structures
Tell me all about the exams….
This IGCSE has no practical. There are two written exams both 1hr 45mins long.
Exam 1: Short answer questions on the Theory of Computer Science 60% of final grade.
Exam 2: Written exam on programming and problem solving 40% of final grade.
It can be taken in the May/June or Oct/November. There is no minimum age for taking it and anyone can take it as many times as they like.
But this is a computing exam, why is there no practical exam or programming?
Computer programming is a large part of the preparation for this exam – especially the second exam. It’s easy to ask programming questions without actually using a computer. In the written exam, students write “pseudo code” based on their practical programming experience. Throughout their studies students use and learn a programming language and they need to complete an exam “Pre-release” task that they get asked questions on in the second exam. The Pre-release programming task is sent out to students about 3 months before the exam date. Without good practice and knowledge of programming, it would be impossible to pass the second exam.
Which programming language should be used to prepare for the exam?
CIE recommend a number of programming languages to prepare for the exam: Python (I teach this in my classes), Visual Basic, Java, Pascal. It doesn’t matter which you choose, in the exam you write “Pseudo Code” which is a sort of hybrid of all programming languages. They are testing your general programming knowledge and ability to problem solve.
Where can my child sit the exam?
Most home educated children sit their exams at a variety of places around the country: private schools, colleges and dedicated exam centres. CIE exams are a little harder to find an exam centre for, but not impossible. It’s a good idea to get in touch with other Home Educators in your area as they will be able to tell you of any places locally.
How much does the exam cost?
This differs depending on the exam centre but it’s usually around £100-£150.
Is there an official course book?
Yes. There are three different course books available and accredited by CIE. There are also revision guides too. Here are links to the official books: note – I only use the Python book with my students and use alternative course books.
Official Cambridge Coursebook
Official Programming Course book (Visual Basic)
Official Programming Course Book (Python)
Official Revision Guide
My child hasn’t really done much programming or computer work before, will they find it too hard?
That depends on your child and their academic ability, but if your child has little computer or programming experience, they need to set aside extra time to practice and study especially when they first start.
What is the hardest part of the syllabus?
In my opinion I’d say Logic Gates and Circuits is the most complex.
Are there any free resources for the exam?
Yes, there are plenty of free resources including:
MOOC (Massive Online Open Course) by the exam board themselves.
BBC Bitesizeis also helpful and covers a good chunk of the syllabus.
Do you have any further advice?
Just that this a great exam to take if your child is interested in computing or programming. It covers almost all the basics (except networks!) and will give them a good grounding in the subject.
If they don’t want to do programming but like computers, then ICT would be the exam to take.