The Trials and Tribulations of the GCSE – an Introduction.

Image from The Guardian

Well, what do you know. It’s been a while, hasn’t it? A wild ride of frantic revision – because you were too lazy to do any proper revision over the Easter holidays – and a wide variety of GCSEs, twenty-two, actually. For some reason, I am finding it very hard to write fluently, so please forgive me for the somewhat erratic nature if this post. It’s been a while.

Notice that rhetoric technique there? No? Well, I probably got an A – as opposed to an A* – in English language, which would be rather disappointing, given that I was predicted ten A*s and a B.
B, you say? Yes, a B. sorry for the rather confusing nature of the previous structure and for my rather pompous tone! That B was for Ancient History. Interestingly, that was the one of two GCSEs I took, everything else was iGCSE. For my foreign audience, keep on reading and I shall explain everything in a moment. Anyway, having seen that mark, I basically ignored all other subjects and revised Ancient History like there was no tomorrow. As it is a GCSE, it’s modular, which is annoying to the umpteenth degree, considering that it was the only qualification for which there were three exams.
Anyway, I feel like I did not screw any exam up hugely, so I am relatively confident for straight A*s, but we will have to wait for August.
A bit of context. The GCSE – the general certificate of secondary education – is a stupid qualification (see here, here and here). Despite its stupidity, it’s the mandatory qualification all UK students have to do at 16 in order to get into a sixth-form college (or years 12 and 13 to get GCE A-level qualifications, the general certificate of education advanced level, to get into university. Silly naming schemes, right? You’ll hear me complain about this later on!). There is also the iGCSE, the international  general certificate of secondary education. This qualification is done by only international UK schools, but private schools within the UK can opt to do it as well. Apparently, it is a more challenging qualification with a better syllabus. Stupidly enough, UK state schools cannot choose to do the iGCSE, they have to do the GCSE. Way to close the education gap, Gove. 
Overall, I took 11 subjects, so I averaged 2 exams per subject. Just for the sake of cataloging, here is my subject list:
English Literature – AQA certificate
English Language – AQA certificate
Mathematics higher – Edexcel iGCSE and OCR Core 1 (first AS module)
German – CIE iGCSE
French – CIE iGCSE
DT: Systems and Control – WJEC/CBAC GSE
Ancient History – OCR GCSE
Biology – Edexcel iGCSE
Physics – Edexcel iGCSE
Chemistry – Edexcel iGCSE
Geography – Edexcel iGCSE
Again, silly. I had 5 different exam boards! What a convoluted system! Just for interest, if you want advice on any of this, I would not mind at all being contacted and asked. I would like to impart my now defunct exam technique knowledge onto someone else!
Th other GCSE I took was the WJEC systems and control qualification. This is basically the study of control systems, electronics, manufacturing and CAD/CAM, but the WJEC don’t think so! This exam was possibly the worst of all of them: all the challenging and interesting things (555 timers, transistors, gear trains) do not come up. Instead, they ask you questions like “Explain how a wind farm creates winners and losers”. What an academically insightful question! This was also the only exam with a significant error, one that any self-respecting engineer would have seen: a NAND logic gate, when a low (0) signal is applied to the inputs, outputs a logic high (1). In their example, they wrote that it outputs a low (0)!
Fine, it’s not that dramatic, but to someone who understands the implications, this is a simple factual error that should have never made its way into the paper. After requesting to speak to our examinations officer during the exam, he called the board and asked for the correction. Low and behold, they issued a correction. The funny thing behind this entire story is that we would regularly mock the WJEC (we now call them Wijeck, pronounced wee-je-ck) for their past papers, their incorrect information on the designers we had to study [“Jonathan Ive likes to use many tropical colours in his designs”. Umm… No, he does not…] and some of their protocols regarding the controlled assessment; however, in their defence, they were apparently better than AQA, who had vague exam questions. Considering that they have to endure the horror of reading my handwriting, I will say to them, please don’t dock marks for this small quip!
Then we had the sciences. They were vague as ever, but in physics paper 1, there were some fun questions! “Explain why it is hard to clean up after a nuclear disaster”, 5 marks. That is Geography! It has no place in an Physics iGCSE paper! Then to have questions that give you the answer (“show how the momentum is approximately 6 kgm/s”) just to insult the intelligence of our calculators is ludicrous! I understand that students may not be able to do the calculation, but with questions like that, who needs to?
As a small side note, I have some tips for those doing exams: words like “therefore” can be easily replaced with “thus” – it makes you sound smarter and also reduces the time writing! Also, use dashes. They are a nice way of getting rid of the mountain of commas you need to create a complex sentence. You should have noticed my newfound use of them in this post.
So, as I await my results with eager anticipation, lets update you on my happenings. Firstly, and perhaps most importantly, we won the Toyota STEM Challenge national finals, and given our shoddy performance from last year (see here, here and here), it was a relief! We also traveled to Belgium for the BalloonSat programme, where we sent a Raspberry Pi, hooked up to a RTLSDR FM radio receiver to preform spectrum analysis. We hope to analyse the data over the summer and see whether it is possible to determine the relative position of the weather balloon the kit traveled in, in either two or three dimensions. In addition, I have also applied for an Arkwright Engineering Scholarship and am awaiting the outcome of that with childlike excitement!
This past school year has been absolutely amazing for me: I did all of the above and also began to create somewhat of a social life, although, for the age of 16, it is still lacking, but then again, I am content with my activities over the year, so I am not too disappointed. I would, however, like to thank my teachers, as well as the technology department for being so helpful throughout the year, and of course, my tutor for dealing with my shenanigans and supporting my activities. I really only realised now how much teachers do make a difference in the students co-curricular life.
A great year should now be leading into a great summer as well! I am off to Imperial College London for a one-week work experience at the Chemical Engineering department, working with biofuels: all the things that interest me! I shall be sure to keep you posted on the happenings there. Following this, I am off to Stanford University for three weeks on the “Education Programme for Gifted Youths”, which I hope will be an awe-inspiring experience for me! Apparently, I am somehow a “gifted youth”, which worries me somewhat! I shall be studying Environmental and Earth Sciences, which sounds very interesting…!
Then we have A-levels starting the following year. I plan to post another piece on how I chose my A-levels (the final qualification that dictates whether you get into university) as that was a rather complex matter! Anyway, I am doing Maths, Further Maths, Physics, Chemistry and German, taking them all on to A2 with Further Maths to AS only. That was, I carefully worked out, the way I could take the most subjects with that combination. More on that later.
Next year, we are also entering the first UK CanSat competition. We are going to build an autonomous rover that can fit into a drinks can and be launched 1km into the atmosphere. It will be a challenge, but that has never stopped us! If we win that, its off to the Netherlands for the European final! We are also looking into entering the Aerospace competition, but we will see how our time plays out. 
There is a lot more to come here. I know I have neglected TheCompBlog for a while now, but in my free week in the summer, I will transition the blog to WordPress (finally) and get that up and running on my Raspberry Pi. I have been told not to do this, but I am anyway, just because it would be fun! For now though, the lovely Alicia Cuddeford will be guest posting here next to kick us off with our series of examination slander! She is an AS-level student, so this shall be fun! 
Until then.



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