Controversial international GCSEs used disproportionately by private schools are “easier” than new reformed GCSEs, a new study suggests.

Research published by Education DataLab, based on information from the National Pupil Database, shows that iGCSEs are “not graded quite as severely” as reformed GCSEs, making it easier for pupils to reach top grades.

It follows a fierce debate over the qualifications sparked by data which shows the extent to which iGCSEs are preferred by non-state schools.

iGCSEs no longer count in school performance tables for state schools in subjects where a reformed GCSE has been introduced, effectively barring state schools from using the qualifications.

However, government data released to the former shadow education secretary Lucy Powell shows many private schools continue to opt for iGCSEs, prompting calls from the Labour party for a government inquiry into the issue.

A spokesperson for the Department for Education accepted that “international GCSEs have not been through the same regulatory approval and quality control as the reformed GCSEs”, but would not comment on whether the government had plans to do anything about the disparity.

Although many reformed GCSEs no longer have coursework elements and instead focus on a final set of exams, iGCSEs still include a mixture of exams, coursework and practical assessments.

Two in three achieve top iGCSE grades

DataLab’s research, carried out by Dave Thomson, found two thirds of pupils achieved a grade A* or A in maths and English language iGCSEs in 2017, while between 18 and 20 per cent achieved the equivalent grades of 9 to 7 in reformed GCSEs.

Although he accepted that attainment “tends to be higher” in private schools, Thomson explored whether there would still be such a disparity if those who took iGCSEs had taken the reformed qualifications instead.

Researchers compared iGCSE English and maths results alongside pupils’ results in a legacy GCSE qualification also taken in the summer of 2017.

This revealed that more A* and A grades were awarded in English and maths iGCSEs than expected based on performance in  legacy qualifications, but were in line with expectations for the reformed GCSEs.

There were also “slightly more” A* to C grades awarded in both subjects at iGCSE than expected.

Thomson concluded that “perhaps iGCSEs are indeed not graded quite as severely as reformed GCSEs”, though he did say further work was needed.

Private schools ‘not gaming system’

However, Neil Roskilly, chief executive of the Independent Schools Association, disputed this conclusion and insisted there was “no research to suggest that iGCSEs have a lower cognitive demand than reformed GCSEs”.

“Most state schools have been forced down a narrowing curriculum pathway by the Ebacc performance measure, but independent schools would rather assess the suitability of the new GCSEs before deciding on any wholesale change,” he said.

“It comes down to private schools making decisions on specifications and content, in the best interests of their pupils, and not being so driven by narrow accountability measures. That’s not gaming the system.”

Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said it was “manifestly unfair” that state schools were no longer able to take iGCSEs.

“The research from Education DataLab provides more cause for concern and it is of paramount importance that Ofqual ensures the new reformed GCSEs are not graded more severely than equivalent qualifications,” he added.

“The unfairness is that the government has shifted the goalposts for state schools having previously encouraged them to teach iGCSEs.”

Labour: We need a review

According to the Guardian,  91 per cent of iGCSE entries in EBacc subjects came from independent schools. iGCSEs made up 13.6 per cent of all independent school EBacc subject entries, compared to 0.1 per cent of state-funded schools.

Angela Rayner, the shadow education secretary, said: “We cannot have an education system with different rules for the privileged few. It is totally wrong that Tory reforms are putting state school pupils at a disadvantage compared to their counterparts who can afford a private education.

“We urgently need to get to the bottom of this situation. A full, root-and-branch review of Tory reforms to qualifications and their impact on pupils is needed.”