Tuesday, 31 May 2011

Studying at home for GCSEs and International GCSEs

I wrote a little yesterday about studying for and taking GCSEs at home. I said that this was a full time job and perhaps gave the impression that it meant unrelenting work at the task through all the waking hours. Somebody asked whether it would be possible to work in the evenings while doing this and so I think that I have probably not explained very well. Perhaps it would help to take a specific example of studying for a GCSE and see how it can work.

One of the most daunting things when considering the formal teaching of children with a view to their taking GCSEs is that the subjects sound so vast and all embracing that you don't know where to begin! I mean history, for instance. There's just so much of it! Does my kid need to know everything, from the Egyptians to Tony Blair? What about science? Where do I even start? Fortunately, it is all a good deal simpler than we think. For whatever subject you wish to teach, there is a specification. This sets out in great detail precisely what your child will need to know to pass the exam. Let's look at a specification for one of the IGCSEs; biology, for example. You can see it here. Just click on the link and download the PDF for the specification:


This all makes it a lot clearer. Your child doesn't have to know everything about biology; just what is listed here. We printed out a copy of the specification and then ticked off the topics as we covered them. Then when we did them again, we made another tick and a third during revision. It really was that simple. This is free; you don't need to buy a lot of textbooks and revision notes, there are plenty of books in the library and also in charity shops. We never spent more than three hours or so each morning working at academic stuff. Because few homes have laboratories attached to them, this is a traditional teachers' objection to the teaching of science at home; 'How will they do the experiments and practical work?' This is a lot of nonsense, as the teachers very well know. Most of them avoid any practical work anyway these days, because the kids can't be trusted not to injure themselves or each other. In fact, at home one can do far more than would ever be undertaken in a school setting. This ties in with what I said about only working for a few hours in the morning. let's see how.

Having read up on one small aspect of the specification in the morning and looked at what several books have to say about it, we can then fool around in the afternoon and evening having fun in a way that is really conducting experiments to reinforce what we read from the specification that morning. Suppose we dealt with this part of the IGCSE Biology Specification:

Fungi: These are organisms that are not able to carry out photosynthesis; their body is
usually organised into a mycelium made from thread-like structures called hyphae, which
contain many nuclei; some examples are single-celled; they have cell walls made of
chitin; they feed by extracellular secretion of digestive enzymes onto food material and
absorption of the organic products; this is known as saprotrophic nutrition; they may store
carbohydrate as glycogen.
Examples include Mucor, which has the typical fungal hyphal structure, and yeast which
is single-celled.

Yeast, eh? Have we tried putting a little sugar and water in the bottom of a jug and then stirring in some baking yeast? It will, after a while, froth up. Hmmm, must be producing Carbon Dioxide as a by-product. How can we test for this? Easy, just put a lighted match into the jug. If it goes out, this means that the air has been driven out and only Carbon Dioxide remains. If you are also doing chemistry, you can then experiment with the Carbon Dioxide at this point, pouring it over a candle to extinguish it or from the jug into a glass. Kids are fascinated at the idea of pouring an invisible gas. You could try brewing some wine or beer, which ties in with another part of the specification about industrial fermenters. If you have a garden, you can start a compost heap and observe the fungus in action as it decomposes the food scraps. Put a few moistened crumbs of bread in a transparent plastic cup and seal the end with cling-film. Put it in the airing cupboard and fungus will grow in the dark. This is also useful for distinguishing between fungus and plants which need light to grow. You can actually observe the mycelium mentioned in the extract from the specification which I gave above. Back to yeast again, you can seal a slice of banana in a sandwich bag and then another slice with a little yeast sprinkled on it. Which goes mushy first and why? In fact the academic work of following the specification only takes up a small part of the studying. Even if you are working, the sort of things which I discuss above can easily be undertaken in the evening or at weekends.

This is just a tiny instance of how the process works, but I can promise readers that it is not at all a hard thing to teach GCSEs in this way. In fact it is a lot of fun. The important thing is to plan ahead a bit and gear some of your outings as well to the specification; visits to museums and lectures and so on. Quite a few parents do GCSEs with their children and most families have a great time at it. The idea that taking examinations destroys all the fun in a child's learning is one of the greatest myths current in British home education. It is actually great fun!


  1. This is marvellous Simon, I am in the process of trying to seperate the chaff fropm the wheat - so to speak - with the many iGCSE offerings out there right now, I must admit I was getting a bit bogged down by it all.
    My DS only want to do specific subjects -the ones he knows he will need for college entry etc - and whilst I have had all the best intentions in the world to furnish him with a good education in all these areas, I now realise that much of it could have been ommitted, or at least further condensed to achieve the same results.
    Did you use this particular company (Edexcel) for your own daughter?

  2. 'Did you use this particular company (Edexcel) for your own daughter?'

    Yes, we used Edexcel for everything. The great thing about home education is being able to choose what you want in this way. Anybody who has had a child at secondary school when they are choosing their 'options' will know how annoying this is. Your child might want to take both history and geography and then you are told that this is not possible. It must be one or the other. Similar things happen with those who wish to take two modern languages and are told that they are not allowed to do so. You are also apt to find your child being compelled to study some foolishness such as media studies. Single sciences are another thing which most maintained schools forbid their pupils to take, preferring the so-called double award science. I had beet stop writing about this, because it causes my blood pressure to rise! If anybody wishes to contact me by email for any information which I may be able to help with; please feel free.


  3. Great article, Simon. Did you have any difficulty in finding somewhere to sit the exam?

  4. 'Anonymous said...
    Great article, Simon. Did you have any difficulty in finding somewhere to sit the exam?'

    Don't even ask! Yes we did and Edexcel will not help because they do not wish to be thought of as endorsing any particular school or college. The best way to do it is to ring around the nearest independent schools. To keep their charitable status, these schools must now demonstrate a public benefit and so they are more keen to help out private candidates. This has also driven down the cost. I paid an independent school in Kensington well over £100 each, but the price has dropped to around £40 in some places. The problem is of course that state schools do not in general offer the IGCSE, which means that you need not bother asking the local comprehensive.


  5. These are your best posts. You could write a whole series on what you did or compile a book of your experiences. Your love of being with your daughter and educating her to such a high standard positively shine through and prove very inspiring.

  6. I agree - write another book, please! While there are great ones from a US perspective, there is a total lack from the UK!

  7. 'write another book, please!'

    Be patient, they are on their way! In the next year we shall be seeing the publication of:




    I'm afraid home education has had to take something of a back seat for the next few months, although something about this is planned for the future.


  8. A normal Person2 June 2011 at 08:53

    For those doing exams these are invaluable

  9. Hi Simon, it's great to hear your positive experiences on GCSEs & home education, it can be done & you still have the flexibility of learning what & when you child wants to, but still coming away with qualifications that will take them onto college of FE etc. Really positive encouragement for anyone wanting to include some aspect of GCSEs into their home ed :)
    For anyone looking for help with Maths GCSE, a site to check out (which is IGCSE compliant) is www.stuckonhomework.com, it breaks the entire curriculum down into bitesize videos :)

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