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A Reflection on the IGCSE Experience

A few weeks ago I received a very important email in my inbox, which reminded me of my smaller self two years ago, looking at a very similar email. Now, however, the subject line read: ‘IB Subject Form’, evidence that I had, in fact, grown up in the last two years.

For our younger readers, before you begin your IGCSEs and your IBs, the school sends you a form to complete, in which you choose what subjects you’d like to study. There are six ‘blocks’, all of which have different subjects for you to choose.

I am now almost at the end of my ‘IGCSE journey’; exams are coming up in about two weeks, and soon enough my classmates and I are going to move on to the next big step: IB. (Or, for some, A-Levels) I have to preface this article by clarifying that I am, overall, satisfied with my IGCSE experience. I’m not trying to advocate for or against it, because I think pursuing IGCSEs is an excellent way to explore your passions and aptitudes. But, of course, alternatives exist for those who do not think the IGCSE is the right ‘next step’. This article, however, is meant to explore the advantages and disadvantages I discovered in my own personal experience with the IGCSE. That is not to say that everyone will have these issues, or that other issues do not exist, these are simply the ones I have been met with.

Choosing Subjects

My first major issue with the IGCSEs arose before I even started Year 10 (the first year of IGCSEs). We got the infamous (relatively cryptic) email in which we picked the subjects we wished to study for IGCSE. Personally, I picked them out on a whim. When I talked to some of my peers, the consensus was that most of the picking was done relatively randomly. Some subjects were selected because the children had previous passions, or they knew they’d need it for the future, but an alarming majority claimed that they selected subjects by guessing what would be ‘easy’ or what they’d be good at (with an honourable mention to the answer, “my siblings suggested…” or “my parents suggested”).

I had picked out my IGCSEs thinking, at the frail age of 13, that I would pursue something in psychology. Now, years later, I have had a strong change of heart, and while psychology remains dear to me, I know pursuing a career in this field would not render me happy. This is normal and to-be-expected. After all, children claiming they want to become astronauts, princesses or superheroes, despite being met with smiles and coos, are rarely taken seriously, because adults know that children discover themselves and their passions as they go through life. Therefore, it was to be expected that I would change my desired career path as I got older. Now hoping to study medicine, I find myself in an awkward position. I had disregarded chemistry and physics when choosing my IGCSEs seeing as they weren’t that important for psychology, but now they have become vital for my new goals.

In a discussion with my friends, this issue was raised, and I realised that I wasn’t alone in my ‘awkward position’. Others also realised that they had effectively wasted two years studying subjects they now no longer needed, seeing as they had reorientated themselves career-wise, and were missing out on subjects that they did need.

I believe the fact that IGCSEs force you to choose subjects to study and subjects to drop is a big disadvantage. Albeit initially seeming like a benefit – children get to focus on their desired career path and don’t waste their time with subjects they aren’t gifted at or don’t particularly need – the idealism soon crumbles as children are faced with harsh reality. More often than not, they don’t know what they want to study at that age. Reorientation should be possible, reorientation should be facilitated, but in this curriculum it is unintentionally discouraged.

The Syllabus

In the weeks leading up to the exams, I hear more and more people tell me about subjects they’ve decided to drop, namely, subjects they won’t be taking the exam for at the end of the year. However, no course is designed with the intention of making the students drop out of it, so clearly there is a discordance somewhere, if students decide to drop subjects. I believe that the issue comes from the lack of time devoted to informing the students on what certain courses will teach them. I have talked to many students who were left deceived and disappointed at the curriculum studied in the lesson, and who dropped subjects as a result of this, or switched them at the beginning of the year.

But this results in wasted time, since students study a subject for two years and then don’t take the exam that academically validates their effort. Despite this, I believe this could easily be solved if students were given a more comprehensive rundown on the content of the subject they want to study. Because instead of realising three months into the course that the subject matter doesn’t interest you, it seems much more logical to attach a document or a video that informs students of what they will be learning if they decide to choose to study said subject.

The Beauty of the Course

Nonetheless, what I will give the IGCSE credit for is the incredibly in-depth and comprehensive curriculum it has guided me through in the last two years. Naturally, I only take a number of courses so I cannot speak for all of them, but all of the ones I have taken were interesting and diverse enough that even if I didn’t like one particular part of the course, another part was sure to appeal to me. I attribute this to the fact that the course has a duration of two years. That is plenty of time to allow students to explore every crevice and angle of a subject.

I have also noticed that no matter the subject, Cambridge at least attempts not to teach a monocultural curriculum, or a one-sided account of events. In lessons such as English, there is great cultural diversity in the authors and poets we study, in Sociology there is always emphasis on ethnic and cultural diversity. History is the only slightly more difficult situation.

I cannot deny that it is clearly Eurocentric. At least part of the curriculum focuses majorly on events in European history. However, the second part of the curriculum provides teachers with some leeway. They are allowed to pick between case studies of countries in Europe, America and Asia. This still doesn’t touch much upon African history, or East Asian history (besides whatever is interconnected with European history as is), so it isn’t a full, perfectly comprehensive curriculum, but this can be at least attempted to be justified. It would be very difficult to assign equal amounts of time to each continent; history is too complex for that. It would result in, at best, skimming over events in the world without being able to deepen any knowledge because of time constraints. Therefore, because it focuses on World History, it had to make a few sacrifices. Whether this was the correct choice or not is a more complex debate, but the fact that the curriculum doesn’t solely focus on Britain’s history (as would be expected with the British curriculum) was a pleasant surprise and is praise-worthy.

A conclusion

The IGCSE course is not perfect, that much can be agreed upon. Some of the problems with the course are beyond anyone’s control to fix, but some aren’t. Perhaps the school could take a more active role in preparing children for the jump from Year 9 to IGCSE by placing more of an emphasis on the children understanding what they will be subjected to for the next two years rather than the parents. Teachers could be asked to prepare a brief overview of the course in order for children to be aware of what the curriculum of a subject consists of before signing up for it. And maybe an emphasis could be placed on keeping doors open for the future; indecision is normal, finding new passions is acceptable, and not knowing is alright.

With all that said, the IGCSE course is still, in my opinion, an excellent way to continue studies while focusing on the things that you care about and are interested in, with an engrossing and diverse curriculum that can appeal to many.

To all my colleagues taking their exams in a few weeks, good luck with your exams! And to all Year 9 students just about to start their IGCSEs, good luck in the upcoming years!

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