GCSE Sciences Explained: Double and Triple Award and the IGCSE

This guide is not intended to be definitive and comprehensive, but should give parents and students a general overview of the structure of science qualifications at Key Stage 4. Always check the details with your own school and examination board.

The comments I make are my personal views and are not intended to reflect those of Ofqual or the examination boards with which I am associated.

Triple and Double Award: the structure

When I was at school it was simply a case of taking separate O-levels in chemistry, biology and physics, but these days it is a little more complicated! The closest equivalent to the three separate qualifications today is known as Triple Sciences or the Triple Award, in which students obtain three separate GCSEs (Biology, Chemistry and Physics). Students are taught the three subjects separately, by different teachers (subject specialists, one would hope), usually beginning in Year 9. Each of the three sciences is divided into three units: 1, 2 and 3, each with a written examination. Thus the GCSE Biology course comprises Units B1, B2 and B3. Similarly, we have C1, C2 and C3 for Chemistry and – you’ve guessed it – P1, P2 and P3 for Physics. Therefore, students following the Triple Award have to sit nine examination papers in Year 11. They also have to undertake coursework, known as the ISA (Investigative Skills Assessment), in each of the three subjects. The ISA, which involves practical work and written papers, is undertaken in normal lesson times (usually in Years 10 and 11) and is marked internally, by the teachers. The ISA carries 25 % of the final mark, with each of the three externally-marked examinations (Units 1, 2 and 3) carrying a further 25 %.

Until relatively recently, it was – at least in my experience – not unusual for only a handful of top-flight students to take Triple Sciences, even in some of the grammar schools. Instead, the majority of students did the Double Award, in which they studied the first two units of each of the three sciences (B1, B2, C1, C2, P1 and P2). In other words, students following the Double Award sit only six external examinations. Although the three sciences are still taught separately, the results of the three Unit 1 examinations (B1, C1 and P1) are averaged and rolled into a single GCSE called ‘Science’. Similarly, the three Unit 2 papers are averaged and rolled into a single GCSE called ‘Additional Science’. The students still do ISAs, but only their best two results are counted towards the two GCSEs.

Triple and Double award: the choice

Aside from the obvious fact that students following the Triple Award gain an extra GCSE, there are also implications for further study (AS/A2) to be considered. The GCSE science courses (biology, chemistry and physics) followed by the students who sat their examinations this summer (2014) were different to those followed by students sitting in previous years. In previous years, some schools entered students for the Unit 1 papers (B1, C1 and P1) in Year 10. Some students – those following the Triple Award – might also have sat their Unit 2 papers in Year 10. This freed the students to focus on fewer examinations in Year 11 (Unit 2 of the Double Award and Unit 3 of the Triple Award). I was always opposed to this approach: students were entered too early for these papers and valuable teaching time was lost in the endless preparation for one examination after another. Indeed, many students underperformed in Year 10 – with a resultant blow to their confidence – and ended up re-sitting in Year 11.

For many, the shift to the ‘linear’ system (sitting all GCSE science examinations at the end of Year 11) was the most important change affecting the 2014 cohort. However, below the radar, changes of perhaps greater significance were made: the difficult topics from Unit 2 were moved to Unit 3. I noticed this particularly in Chemistry. This change will have enabled more students to obtain at least C grades in Science and Additional Science (the Double Award). Under the new system, only students entered for the Triple Award have to study the more difficult aspects of the subject (as they also did in the old system, but within Unit 2 rather than Unit 3). The implications for study beyond GCSE are not without significance. Under the previous system, students with the Double Science award were not at any disadvantage when starting AS: all the tough topics were covered in Unit 2. Today, however, students starting AS with the Double Award at GCSE will be at a disadvantage compared with those holding the Triple Award. These changes may have made it easier for more students to achieve 5 good GCSE passes (grades A* to C), but they have lessened the value of the Double Award. It can be revealing to compare the numbers of students entered for Science and Additional Science (Double award) with those entered for Biology, Chemistry and Physics (Triple Award) in different schools.

From September 2015, schools will begin teaching new GCSE specifications: these will incorporate the changes we currently see reported and discussed in the media, including the shift to a numerical grading system. For some subjects, including science, these changes will be introduced from September 2016. The best way to keep abreast of these changes is to look at the examination board websites (the AQA website is a good place to start).

Many people, including some teachers, have protested and question the need for these changes. Whilst change can be disruptive (particularly when introduced in a piecemeal manner), it is certainly necessary in science education: something has gone seriously wrong as the emphasis has shifted from the requirement of students to develop a solid knowledge and understanding of the subject to being required to develop an awareness of ‘issues to do with science’.

Foundation and Higher Levels

Students studying the sciences at GCSE, whether Double or Triple Award, can be entered for examinations at Foundation or Higher Level. As the names imply, the Foundation papers are easier than the Higher papers. The key difference, however, is that in the Foundation papers the highest grade a student can be awarded is C. Grades B, A and A* are accessible only through the Higher papers.

Whilst a student can be awarded a C grade in either the Foundation or Higher papers, there is a perception that it is easier to achieve a C in the former. In some schools aiming to maximise the number of students crossing the critical D/C barrier, many students are entered at Foundation level. ‘Playing the system’ this way is highly divisive and stifles potential: the students are being denied the opportunity to aspire to the higher grades – all in the name of league tables and head teacher’s job. Rather than seeking to manipulate the examination system to ‘enhance’ performance, we should be looking at what has gone wrong in the classroom: it is only here, through more effective teaching, that genuine improvements in performance can be made.

IGCSE Sciences

It really does fill me with despair when I see what we have to teach young people today in the name of GCSE science. As if things were not bad enough, the 2014 changes described above have been associated with the replacement of yet more factual content with soft, woolly ‘issues’. Instead, for example, of acquiring a rigorous understanding of the chemical reactions that occur in the extraction iron and copper from their ores, students are indoctrinated with a series of social, environmental and ethical issues to do with mining. It is as though the very heart of the subject – the chemistry – has been ripped out to make the material more ‘accessible’. Similarly, in biology, the anatomical, physiological and biochemical basis of the subject has been watered down and replaced with topics such as slimming, healthy lifestyles and substance abuse (the latter topic amounting to little more than a street-user's guide to commonly available drugs). This is really just general knowledge, not the academic treatment you would expect the holder of a GCSE in science to have received. Little wonder students find the transition to AS so difficult.

It is for such reasons that the best schools have adopted the International GCSE. These are far more rigorous than the GCSEs. The Edexcel IGCSE Biology course, for example, is a pleasure to teach: it has the proper subject content of the old O-levels, but the material has been brought up to date, giving the best of both worlds. There is no doubt about it: the science IGCSEs are far tougher than their GCSE counterparts. The University of Cambridge International Examinations board (CIE) offers a particularly tough IGCSE in chemistry, but it is a wonderful course: interesting, invigorating and fulfilling for students and teachers alike.

I find that students enjoy the intellectual challenge and stimulation of the IGCSEs; they find the GCSEs dull and patronising. Instead of being required to list the advantages and disadvantages of uPVC windows (They don’t need painting. You can scratch them, but the colour is the same underneath! They are made from crude oil, which is running out.), students studying IGCSE Chemistry acquire a proper grounding in the chemical reactions through which modern polymers and plastics are produced. Yes, it’s tougher, but young people do rise to the challenge if you do not patronise them with low expectations: they need teaching properly, by inspiring teachers not tied to the prescriptive, tick-box culture which is pervading our schools. I have seen students who initially struggle with the science IGCSEs go on to achieve fantastic grades. The fact of the matter is that many schools, particularly those in the state sector, are reluctant to adopt the IGCSE because they are fearful it will result in lower grades, thereby affecting their position in the league tables. This is not education. I see many students with top grades at GCSE really struggle at AS. The IGCSE provides a far better basis for further study – even when the student holds a lower grade. Unfortunately, there is little honesty in this debate.

For further information, please use the following links:

Where I Can Help My Approach to Teaching How to Derive Maximum Benefit


Return to Tuition Main Page