CIE IGCSE® First Language English: Summer 2015


April 15
00:00 2016

HMC and the Girls Schools Association (GSA) have today (15 April 2016) published a joint report looking at the awarding of CIEs IGCSE First Language English (entry number 0500) in summer 2015. Ofqual monitored the awarding of the elements of this specification in summer 2015 and reviewed the awards in autumn 2015 in the light of concerns expressed by some schools. While we recognised that the narrow grade widths in Paper 2 were far from ideal, we found that CIE made appropriate awarding decisions and did not find that the award was unsafe. The analysis offered by HMC/GSA, from an unrepresentative subset of schools, does not of itself invalidate our findings.

Further details of our work is given below, while a commentary on the HMC/GSA analysis can be found at the end. We have also today published new centre variation analysis for IGCSE and GCSE English/English language results which can be found at the end of this news item.


CIEs IGCSE English specification has two entry numbers:

  • 0522 is available to state schools in England
  • 0500 is taken mainly by students in independent schools and overseas centres

Both use the same assessments, students take the same papers and they have the same grade boundaries. The main difference between them is that 0522 includes speaking and listening in the overall grade whereas 0500 reports (optional) speaking and listening separately. UK entries for 0522 are far higher than for 0500 because only 0522 is approved by the Department for Education for use in maintained schools. In 2015, nearly 200,000 students took 0522, compared to 17,000 taking 0500.

In recent years the entry for 0522 has nearly quadrupled. The proportion of students being entered for the extended paper (higher tier) has also increased from 61% to 71%. This is surprising given that the entry is skewed towards C/D borderline students. The risk of entering lower ability students for extended/higher tier papers is that if they do not achieve the lowest grade available (in this case an E) they receive a U (ungraded). Our analysis shows that large numbers of students with very low Key Stage 2 prior attainment (in the bottom 25% of the cohort) are entered for the extended paper and that about two thirds of them do not achieve a grade on that paper.

Summer 2015 preparation

In May 2015 CIE sent us analysis which suggested that 0522 had been graded slightly leniently in 2014, particularly at grade C, compared to GCSEs in English. It is normal for exam boards to routinely review the outcomes of their grading process and to make fine adjustments where appropriate once they have analysed all of the data from the exam series. This is a feature of both IGCSE and GCSE and is an important element of maintaining standards over time.

For summer 2015, CIE proposed to tighten their grade standards. CIE told us that they intended to tighten their grade standards at C and, to a lesser extent, at A. During the grading period, CIE provided us with copies of the evidence they were using, and we held several meetings with them via telephone during July. CIE did tighten their outcomes at C and, to a lesser extent, at A.

Summer 2015 awarding

Awarding is more difficult when cohorts change significantly. The combination of a significant rise in entries and the over-representation of C/D students made the grading decisions in 2015 more challenging for CIE than in previous years. We were aware that on one paper (Paper 2) there were only four marks between grades C and A. Historically, the grade widths on this paper have been narrow but they were narrower by one mark in 2015 than in the previous year. Narrow grade widths provide particular challenges during awarding. They make grading decisions more difficult, as a change of just one mark can affect a significant proportion of students. They also mean that papers do not differentiate between students as intended. In this case, it means that the mark achieved on Paper 2 had much less effect on a students overall grade than their marks on the other papers.

Other papers had more marks between A and C. For example on Paper 3 there were 10 marks between the boundary marks for A and C and on the coursework component there were 12 marks between A and C. Paper 2 marks are added to those of either Paper 3 or 4 (according to the papers the student has taken) to determine the overall grade.

We concluded that, in the circumstances, CIE made appropriate grading decisions.

Reviews of summer 2015 awarding

Following the issue of results, concerns were expressed by schools that were unhappy with their results. In response to those concerns, in October 2015 Ofqual reviewed the available technical evidence provided by CIE in July. The 2015 award was more severe (and so more in line with GCSE standards) than in 2014, but there was no evidence to suggest that CIE had tightened the award beyond what was intended and beyond the usual adjustments that exam boards routinely make on the basis of post-award evidence. We also carried out additional analysis using a statistical technique called Rasch, which compares performance on GCSE and IGCSE based on students performance in other GCSEs taken at the same time. The analysis Relative difficulties of GCSE and IGCSEs in summer 2015 (PDF, 82.2KB, 1 page) suggests the standards in GCSEs and CIEs IGCSE are well aligned. This supports similar analyses conducted by Cambridge Assessment.

At the same time, CIE issued very detailed explanations to HMC and to other stakeholders, which included their initial analysis of the summer 2015 outcomes. CIE concluded that the grading was carried out appropriately, although they anticipate making some further refinements to their awarding this summer, as is standard practice for exam boards. We concluded there was no case to re-open the award. The GSA/HMC report provides no convincing evidence to change our view.

Recent events

Following receipt of the GSA/HMC report, Ofqual carried out further analysis to look at school level variation in results for IGCSE, compared to variation in GCSE English/English language - Variability in IGCSE English and GCSE English/English language results for schools and colleges (PDF, 366KB, 9 pages). It shows that there was slightly more year-on-year variation in IGCSE in 2015 than in GCSE. However, there are far fewer IGCSE schools and so we cannot draw meaningful conclusions from these small differences.

CIE also has a substantial November entry. In November 2015 approximately 40,000 UK students entered 0522, most of whom achieved a D in summer 2015. There was also a substantial overseas entry for 0500. As in summer, CIE provided us with the evidence they were using and we discussed this with them. CIE continued to tighten the standard at grade C. The proportion of re-sitting students who improved their grade was a little higher but in line with that for students re-sitting GCSE English/English language in November 2015. Again, we were content that their grading decisions were appropriate.

Summer 2016

As is normal practice, we have already turned our attention to the summer 2016 grading. We requested entry data from CIE and made clear our expectation that they will aim to improve the spread of marks on Paper 2 this summer.


Relative difficulties of GCSE and IGCSEs in summer 2015

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