The wide reach of IGCSEs
BESIDES the national education and examination system, the next most popular education system available in Malaysia is the IGCSE system. These British examinations, the International General Certificate of Secondary Education, are the international version of the United Kingdom’s national General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSEs).
The IGCSEs are offered by Cambridge International Examinations (CIE), which is part of the University of Cambridge and is the world’s largest provider of international education programmes. It can be extrapolated that the Cambridge IGCSE is the most popular international education system in the world because of the vastness of the Commonwealth, but it is more than this that makes the programme so popular.
In the last few years, the International Baccalaureate (IB), another international education programme, has been gaining popularity around the world, but the IGCSE continues to maintain a good hold in Malaysia and is the most-offered international programme in the country.
As part of its bid to become a regional education hub, Malaysia has an abundance of international schools – currently there are about 90 campuses throughout the country – and only 12 of them do not offer the IGCSE programme. Why its continuing popularity? Basically, the Cambridge IGCSE programme remains so popular in Malaysia is because the system has been proven to be comprehensive, holistic and a good indicator of academic and thinking skills.
One way this is achieved is through a curriculum that allows students to choose from a variety of learning routes that will enable them to explore and develop a wide range of abilities and skills. This is perhaps the programme’s biggest draw, and its main difference from the Malaysian national curriculum, which is comparatively limited.
While the majority of national schools stream SPM students into two distinct categories – science and arts – according to CIE, the IGCSE curriculum emphasises building breadth of knowledge and cross-curricular perspectives. This means that students are encouraged to study a variety of subjects and explore connections between them.
The SPM programme does offer a variety of subjects, from the usual arts and literature, and science and mathematics, to languages, social sciences, and vocational and technical subjects. However, the majority of schools offer only the conventional arts, literature, science and mathematics subjects, limiting the students’ choices in higher study and eventually career.
This is not to say that all international schools offer every IGCSE subject available – as with national schools, the subjects offered depends on the schools’ capacity and availability of qualified teachers. But students do have more choices in what they want to study, subjects that are offered are wider in scope, and teaching and learning methods are through discussion, interaction, understanding and application.
CIE lists the following as areas of development and intended outcomes of the IGCSE programme: Subject content Applying knowledge and understanding to new as well as unfamiliar situations Intellectual enquiry Flexibility and responsiveness to change
Working and communicating in English Influencing outcomes Cultural awareness
For an education system to be truly effective, it has to change with the times. Malaysia’s education system has remained fundamentally unchanged since the country’s independence, but systematic changes are currently being implemented in order to reach the goals set by the Malaysia Education Blueprint 2013-2025.
Teaching and learning is set to change to a less exam-oriented system, and testing will, ideally, be no longer just for the objective of achieving high grades, but to ensure understanding and application of knowledge. The new de-centralised examination system, which will slowly be put into place starting end of this year with the national third form PMR exams, is aimed at eliminating the need for content recall and instead ensure students are trained to think critically.
The very fact that the national system is being changed to accommodate these elements shows how important they are to children’s education and future, as well as the future of the nation.
The GCSE, the UK national system, will also be undergoing some changes from next year. According to the UK’s Department of Education, the system is being reformed to offer more challenging subject content and rigorous assessment structures in order to provide proper preparation of the A-Levels examination, the next step between secondary school and university.
No changes to the IGCSEs have been announced, but educationalists have observed that the GCSE reforms may be an attempt to bring the system up to the higher standards of the IGCSEs. The IGCSEs are a linear examination system – one big exam is taken at the end of the year, and there is no coursework, as compared to the modular GCSEs, where a few exams still offer multiple choice questions.
In fact, there is a current trend in the UK for local students to take some IGCSE exams instead of GCSEs, and even of double entries – students taking both exams for a few subjects, probably with the intention either using the higher grade or the perceived prestige of the IGCSE for college or university entry.
On the other side of the coin, there are observers who comment that the IGCSEs are actually easier than the GCSEs and so it is easier for students to obtain higher scores.
Either way, there seems to be a beginning of a shift in focus towards a more exam-oriented system with emphasis on high scores. Interestingly, this is the opposite of what is happening in Malaysia.
Looking inwards and outwards
In Malaysia, there are arguments that a national system of education turns out nation builders while an international curriculum may not be appropriate or relevant to the life of the student or to his country.
But while the IGCSEs have an international outlook, the programme has been specifically developed in each of the more than 120 countries it is offered in to retain local relevance. The CIE states that the programme was created for an international student body and to avoid any cultural bias.
This essentially means that students graduate as global citizens with both local and international understanding.
In Malaysia, giving the sciences priority over the arts in education has been a national policy that has been in place since the 1970s. The objective of this is to produce sufficient graduates for the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM)-driven economy that is part of Vision 2020.
To any layman, the observable results of this policy are a large percentage of science-stream graduates, a neglect towards the development of the arts stream – which has perhaps led to a retardation in the growth of the Malaysian arts scene — and generations of young people who were unable to pursue their true interests because they were encouraged or even forced, for various reasons, to take up sciences instead of the arts.
The Education Blueprint has outlined steps to raise the percentage of science graduates, including by raising student interest through new learning approaches and an enhanced curriculum.
For Malaysians then, the IGCSEs may seem a more open and comprehensive alternative to education than the national system.
As an internationally recognised qualification and an examination system that feeds directly into the A-Levels system, it certainly is a good choice.
There is no doubt that Malaysia requires nation builders, but as the country moves towards becoming a developed nation, it also needs people with the ability to conceive and actualise worldencompassing ideas, no matter their area of study.
Until the national education system is able to mould students into these global leaders, it seems that international systems such as the IGCSE will remain attractive alternatives.