In September 2021, Rosie chose to start studying for a biology iGCSE from home.
The following summer, my not-so-little-anymore (but still quite little) 12-year-old sat her first iGCSE (International equivalent of a GCSE). Yes, she was young. But we wanted to test the waters and see how difficult they were to do from home. And being only 12, there was no pressure on her whatsoever. If it all went wrong, it just didn’t matter.
On August 25th, my happy little girl found out she’d achieved a 9 (equivalent to an A** for those of us not so used to the new crazy number system!).
Throughout this process, I learned a great deal about how to prepare your child for such an exam. And, given the increase in home education here in the UK, I thought it might be useful to some for me to share our journey.
Please note this is a long post as it’s designed to be of detailed help for children sitting the biology iGCSE from home. Feel free to skip sections as you need. And if your child is sitting this exam, I would also recommend joining the Biology IGCSE for Home Educators Facebook group as it has a wealth of information/recommendations.
iGCSEs or GCSEs?
As home educators, there are some GCSEs which are available to us and others which are not. Science falls into this latter category. Any of the core science subjects require official sign off to confirm that the student has completed the practicals in the curriculum. Finding an exam centre willing to do this is tricky. So most opt for the iGCSE courses which are at an equivalent level.
Although the iGCSE is an exam only option with no specific practical assessment, an understanding of practical work is essential. Many of the questions will be practical based. The specifications include a list of core practicals which the child is required to understand. We tried to complete as many of them as we could (see below).
Rosie opted for the Edexcel curriculum, since it’s easier to find exam centres offering this exam board. The other iGCSE biology option is Cambridge. For us, this would mean an hour’s travel to an exam centre which allows you to sit exams with this board.
Instead, she completed her two papers at a school 30mins away, alongside a few other home educators. The school were very welcoming and the experience a positive one for her.
If you’re looking for exam centres local to you, check out this HE Exams Wiki site. It has a wealth of information about arranging and sitting iGCSEs/GCSEs as a home educator. There is also a list of exam centres by area, although this is an ever-changing situation. Particularly post Covid, some centres have made the decision to no longer accept private candidates. A quick email to the exams officer will validate this (along with the cost). It’s also worth approaching other local schools not on the list. They can only say no, and you haven’t lost anything if they do.
Why Study for iGCSEs/GCSEs from Home?
GCSEs are not for everyone.
For me, GCSEs are a means to an end. I don’t believe, for one second, that they are a very effective tool for assessing a child’s education or intelligence level. Ultimately, their scope is fairly narrow, the exam papers quite formulaic with no major opportunity for the students to show their ability to think deeply or show creative flair.
OK, so I’m really not holding back there!
So why study for a biology iGCSE from home? Why do GCSEs at all?
Well, both of my children are keen to go to university (or at least keep it open as an option). And unfortunately, in the UK, GCSEs are the first hoop through which you must jump.
Admittedly it’s not necessary to sit anywhere near the quantity they do at school. However, both children have expressed a desire to sit a (relatively) “normal” number of GCSEs. By this, we mean nine. Although this is only a plan, it may well change! Less than is conventional in schools, but more than enough to keep any future academic options open.
So, we’ve decided to make the best out of the situation and chose subjects they find the most fascinating. For Rosie, this means no physics which she’s very happy about 😊
On top of this, Rosie will continue to pursue her LAMDA drama qualifications, which are already at an AS level. These are far more important to her than any GCSE. And Harry is still very passionate about all things cricket and playing electric guitar – so cool! He’d like to continue with his Rock Guitar exams over the next few years to at least a Grade 6 (which would afford him some UCAS points).
Spreading the iGCSEs/GCSEs
So why study for and sit a biology iGCSE three years early?
Firstly, let me reassure you that we have no intention for the children to jet off to university early. They have the rest of their lives to be an adult, I want to retain their childhood for as long as possible.
Our plan though, rather than sitting nine different subjects in one stressful summer, is to spread them over several years. Rosie for example, will (probably) sit two more next June, three in 2024 and her final three in 2025 (her Year 11). There are several advantages:
- They’d rather study a topic in depth before moving on to the next.
- Doing a few exams a year feels much less daunting than nine in one summer.
- In some subjects, they’re ready to sit the GCSE, so there’s no reason to wait. Spanish is one such example for Rosie.
- Other subjects they actively dislike but unfortunately need to do – maths for example (for Rosie) – can be done early and stopped forever!
- Some exam boards allow for a winter sitting (in Nov or Jan). Harry will take advantage of this to take pressure off his cricket-full summer.
- Overall, we’ll be sitting a variety of iGCSEs and GCSEs with various exam boards. Not all of these can be completed at the same exam centre. In fact, we’ll have to use a minimum of three different places. Logistically it’s going to be more complex than for school children. Spreading them therefore just feels simpler and there is less chance of a clash in timings.
- As they’re only focussing on a limited number of subjects each year, they still have plenty of time to follow their passions and interests.
Resources Needed for Studying for a Biology iGCSE from Home
The Biology iGCSE Spec
The Edexcel Biology iGCSE has two papers. The first is 2 hours long and worth 61.1% of the total mark, and the second is I hour 15 minutes and worth 38.9%. You can use a calculator in both. First up, it’s worth printing out the specification itself – pages 11-26 of this document. Paper 1 covers any topics which are not bolded and Paper 2 covers everything, including the bolded points.
Personally, I think it’s valuable for your student to become very familiar with this specification. After we’d covered each section, we cross referenced what we’d learned with that part of the spec to ensure we’d not missed anything.
Core Textbooks & Practicals for Biology iGCSE
The two core textbooks we used to study for the biology iGCSE were:
- Pearson Edexcel International GCSE Biology Student Book
- CGP Edexcel International GCSE Biology, Complete Revision and Practice
For the practical element, this Core Practicals Lab Book was invaluable. I found that most (with quite a few tweaks) were possible to do from home. Core Practical 8 required sodium hydrogen carbonate indicator solution which I couldn’t source (if you find some, please let me know in the comments!). Instead, she watched a video about the experiment, and simply learned the expected results.
The vast majority of items required for the experiments can be purchased from the Better Equipped website, fashioned from things at home or bought from DIY stores or garden centres. Get creative! For example, we made our own quadrat from old garden bamboo canes.
If you don’t feel comfortable doing any of the experiments or the equipment/chemicals are too expensive, fear not. You can watch all of them on You Tube. Your child would just need to understand how the equipment should be set up to do the experiments, the expected results and their explanation. We know other candidates who did no experiments at all, which caused them no problem in the exam itself.
But if your child learns in a hands-on way, this might be their favourite part of the curriculum. For example, although not one of the core practicals, we had a lot of fun dissecting flowers to see first-hand the difference between wind and insect pollinated plants.
Question Books for Biology iGCSE
To develop her understanding in each topic, we used the following question/answer resources:
- CGP Revision Question Cards
- CGP Exam Practice Workbook
- Grade 8-9 Targeted Practice Workbook
- 10-Minute Tests (these really weren’t essential and possibly overkill)
I later found this book: Hodder Education Workbook. This is focused on experiment-type questions of which there are many in this exam. Although it was too late to help Rosie, I will be using with Harry since the questions/answers are given in the style of the actual exam papers. This will allow him to familiarise himself with the marking approach as he goes. Rather than right at the end which was Rosie’s experience.
After studying each mini section, Rosie watched a video about the topic. We found the Mr Exham videos to be particularly helpful. Later, we discovered Science with Hazel, whose videos we’ll also use with Harry.
Further below, I’ve linked our curriculum plans and the relevant videos are listed under each section. Sometimes I’ve included both Mr Exham and Science with Hazel videos. You may find there is too much overlap and would prefer to just choose one. See whose style your child prefers.
Biology iGCSE Exam Practice
You can access past exam papers for the January 2021 sitting all the way back to 2011 (note the specification changed in 2019) on the IG Exams website. Not that you’ll need all these papers.
But if your child is struggling with a particular element, it can be useful to scan through old papers to pick up specific types of question to practice. For example, Rosie initially struggled to quickly draw graphs and bar charts. So, I printed her out lots of these from old papers to practise, and by the exam she was much quicker at their creation.
For more recent papers (the ones you will want to focus on), which are annoyingly locked on the Pearson website, you can do two things.
- Ask your local exams officer to send these (and their mark schemes) to you. They will have access to all the locked elements on the Pearson website. Our exams officer did this for me, which was super helpful.
- Request access to additional past papers by filling in the request form on the Pearson website.
If you’d like to practice by topic, use this Study Mind website which helpfully groups exam style questions into their relevant sections. So, for example, a variety of questions on Gas Exchange can be found in one question paper here.
Additionally, we also used these CGP Practice Exam Papers.
Teaching a Biology iGCSE
It’s worth noting that we’d already covered some of the iGCSE content when the kids were younger (albeit in a very slow and hands on way). This was because they’d had a random fascination with genetics and cell biology! That being said, I believe the curriculum can be covered in a year from scratch if done when the child is developmentally ready.
To prepare for teaching this subject, I broke the curriculum down into manageable sections, for example photosynthesis, the human eye or selective breeding. For each section, I noted down:
- Relevant page numbers in the two main textbooks
- Any supporting videos
- Required practicals & resources needed
- Relevant question card numbers and page numbers from the question books
All the information is collated in this document below which I’ll be using with Harry. (Apologies if there are any errors):
We then just worked through the sections. As we prefer to go deep into a topic, we tended to spend a full day on this subject each week. We upped this to two days/week nearer the exam.
We started in September, with the flowers in full bloom, so I decided to start on sections 13-15 first. This included plant reproduction, ecosystems and biodiversity and allowed us to do outdoor experiments in the sunshine. We then moved onto sections 10-12 to finish off plants in its entirety. And finally, we moved to week 1 onwards! However, if your child has not yet covered cell biology, including things like enzymes, diffusion and osmosis, it would be better to simply start at week 1 on the list as this builds knowledge as you go. We’d just happened to have covered these sections a few years prior.
A Typical Lesson – Photosynthesis
Let’s take photosynthesis as an example. Firstly, together we read pages 135-140 in the main Pearson textbook, discussing each concept as we went. She’d ask many questions. I’d try and answer them and if I couldn’t, we’d look them up! As a homeschooler, they’re used to challenging concepts and digging deeper. Sadly, she very quickly realised she wouldn’t have time to do this and that there were some things she’d just have to accept. And herein, in my opinion, lies the issue with GCSEs …
Watch Instructional Videos
Then, I left her to read the relevant pages in the CGP book and watch the videos. Here for example, she watched Mr Exham videos on Photosynthesis, Photosynthesis Experiments and Factors Affecting the Rate of Photosynthesis. Harry will also watch the Science with Hazel Photosynthesis video since I highly rate her teaching.
Write Up & Memorise
Afterwards, Rosie wrote up this section in a way that helped her learn the concepts. I never looked at this work. It was purely for her (she remembers by writing). By the end, it was full of her own abbreviations to speed up the process. Now I’m doing the same course with Harry, it’s interesting to note that he writes much less, as he remembers by discussing things.
Either way, after this process, the expectation is that they are fully familiar with the concepts, remembering any key points and new biological terms (and how to spell). In this section for example, I would expect them to memorise the parts of a leaf, such as the palisade mesophyll layer etc, and their functions.
If there were any linked practicals, we’d carry them out at this point using the Core Practicals Lab Book. For photosynthesis, it was core practical 5, which comprised two experiments. One with some pond weed to see the impact of light on the production of oxygen bubbles (i.e. on the rate of photosynthesis). And a second to test the need for light, chlorophyll and carbon dioxide in photosynthesis.
We couldn’t always follow the experiment instructions exactly due to a lack of equipment/chemicals. Here for example, in exp. 2 we used soda lime instead of sodium hydroxide solution (and thus beads instead of water in the control) to remove the carbon dioxide from the flask.
Most of the time, we got the expected result, but sometimes it took a bit of patience and tweaking! For example, the first experiment suggested putting the pond weed into some sodium hydrogen carbonate solution to ensure the plant had sufficient carbon dioxide to photosynthesize. We didn’t have any of this, so replaced with water. Therefore, it took a while for our little pond weed to produce any bubbles of oxygen. But when it finally did, it was very exciting!!! To save time, rather than repeating the experiment with the light source placed at four different distances, we simply looked at the oxygen production with the light very close and then very far away. Highly scientific! But then we discussed the issues with our experimental set up to offset our lack of scientific rigour!
As you can see, the experiments were there to provide hands-on experience, an idea of how to set them up, what results should be expected and an understanding of what can go wrong. They were very far from perfect!
Finally, and Rosie’s favourite part, it was time for the questions. Here I asked her the questions on revision cards 22-25, along with various pages in the CGP exam practice and grade 8-9 books. Anything new that came out of this process, she added to her notes. But mostly it was helpful to get an idea of the sorts of questions that came up and how best to answer. Furthermore, it consolidated her knowledge of the subject matter. Note this was all done verbally, nothing was written at this stage.
Finally, we checked the specification for this area to validate we’d covered everything to be expected. Photosynthesis comes under section 2e: Nutrition in Flowering Plants (points 2.18-2.21 and 2.23). We read each of these points (e.g., 2.21: describe the structure of the leaf and how it is adapted for photosynthesis) and ticked each one off.
And once all this was completed, we moved onto the next topic. At the end of each major section, such as Plant Physiology, we did the Unit Questions in the Pearson book as a review.
Preparing for the Biology iGCSE Exam
By the end of March, we’d completed all the topics for the curriculum and so moved into the revision stage. This gave her six weeks to revise before Paper 1 mid-May.
As we were sitting the exam in a post Covid year, we had the Advanced Information to contend with. In normal times, for Paper 1, all topics apart from the bolded sections in the spec need to be revised. And then for the Paper 2, all topics included the bolded sections.
I left Rosie to do this on her own. For her this involved re reading and re writing to memorise it all. And then quickly going through the relevant revision cards to check understanding.
Once she’d memorised the content, we moved onto exam style questions. To kick this off, we booked onto an online revision workshop from the Science with Hazel website. These are not available on the site now, but I’m sure she’ll repeat them before next summer’s exams. These workshops were invaluable. There were two 4-hour live sessions with Hazel and another tutor, one per paper. Here they reviewed the main concepts in each major topic and then talked through some exam questions, showing the students how to answer them to maximise their marks. I would HIGHLY recommend these.
Practice Exam Papers
After doing one last read through of her notes, she started working on past exam papers, from the most recent back in time. She did a combination of written exams under timed conditions and verbally going through papers with me, to save her hand! She struggled most with the maths-type questions of which there were many. So, I pulled out all these types of questions from exam papers going back many years, and she practised until she felt comfortable.
I had a crisis of confidence at this stage, and so we invested in a few last-minute sessions with a biology tutor to go through past exam papers with Rosie. Although the tutor in question was excellent, in all honesty, I don’t think she needed this. She was already scoring 9s by this point, but the tutor gave us both the reassurance we craved as we ventured into the unknown! If, you feel less confident teaching the biology content and were looking for a tutor, I would highly recommend her (Moorside Tutoring).
The more exam papers Rosie did, the more we realised the answers to certain types of question were formulaic. You just need to know the correct terms to use to get the marks. As such, it’s very helpful for the students to see the mark scheme so they know what’s scoring them the points.
A note about question type. It’s important to read the question carefully and know what it’s asking you. As such, I would suggest reading through Appendix B in the Pearson book, which runs through the meanings of all the command words used in the questions. For each word, such as Discuss, find a relevant exam question and look together at how it’s marked.
For example, a question might ask:
- The scientist concludes (based on an experiment/data from previous parts of the question) that cigarette smoking could make male humans infertile. Discuss this conclusion. (5 marks).
Here, you can only score the full five marks if you include both arguments for their conclusion AND arguments against their conclusion. You must do this by analysing data from the experiment and by identifying where the experiment might have fallen down. In this example, an argument against their conclusion was simply that the experiment wasn’t repeated and thus the data was not reliable, which would have scored 1 of the 5 marks.
As you can see, this is very different from an Explain question, where you must use your scientific knowledge to give reasons for why something happens. For example:
- Explain the factors that affect the rate of movement of substances into and out of cells (5 marks).
Here you score marks for simply writing the factors which affect how quickly diffusion and active transport takes place. For example, an increase in the concentration gradient increases the rate of movement of particles (1 mark).
There is normally at least one question requiring students to draw a graph or bar chart. They are normally worth 5 or 6 marks, depending on whether there is a key required (1 mark). Here’s how they’re marked for a line graph:
- 1 mark for drawing an x and y axis with a scale that uses more than half of the given graph paper
- 1 mark for labelling the axes the correct way around. Remember that the dependent variable, the thing you are measuring, goes on the y axis, and the independent variable, the thing you are changing, goes on the x axis.
- 1 mark for including the units in the labels, i.e., minutes or grams etc.
- 1 mark for the key if needed
- 1 mark for plotting points correctly within one square
- 1 mark for joining the points with straight lines
Thus, you can score half of the points without plotting a single data point (the part that takes time)! If you are running short on time then, at least just draw in your x and y axes and label them, with units, to be guaranteed 3 marks! An easy win.
There will also be one question requiring the student to design an experiment, normally worth 6 marks. This is again simpler than it might first appear, providing you use the following structure. The question is marked against the acronym CORMS, which stands for:
C: Change (1 mark): Give the values or range of the independent variable you plan to use.
O: Organism (1 mark): What will you control about the organism used, for example the same species and age of plants.
R: Repeat (1 mark): You literally just have to say I would repeat this experiment x number of times and calculate an average to increase the reliability.
M: Measure (2 marks): What is the dependent variable, the one you are measuring. The second mark is given for adding in a specified time period, so for e.g. I would leave the seeds for x number of days.
S: Same (2 marks): Name at least two control variables that you would keep the same, i.e., temperature, light levels, same compost etc.
Once you start practising the exam questions using this acronym, the experiment question will start to feel less daunting.
The Biology iGCSE Exam Itself
And finally, to the big day. Just a few last-minute tips:
- Don’t forget your passport as you’ll need this for official identification purposes.
- Make sure your student knows their Candidate Number. She also knew the Centre Number, although this will probably be displayed on the board at the front of the room. Although it’s simple, Rosie practised filling in the front sheet of an exam paper ahead of time, just so she felt comfortable.
- Check that your calculator is not running low on battery!
- You’ll be given a list of what you can/can’t take into the exam. Make sure you study it ahead of time. Watches for example were forbidden for us.
- We practised with lots of black pens to see which type she found easiest/quickest to write with and didn’t smudge.
- Rosie memorised the reference numbers for each paper (4BI1/1B and 4BI1/2B). I’ve heard horror stories of home ed children being given the wrong papers, so I asked Rosie to check before starting.
- We had a big debate about what to do if her answers needed to go over the lines provided. Technically, if you need more space to write, you are supposed to ask for extra paper and then mark it up accordingly, with your candidate number etc. She decided this would take too long. Instead, she tried to keep within the lines or possibly one line underneath if there was plenty of free space available. This was always well within the margins of the paper though. If you write outside them, when the papers are scanned, this information will be lost. So, if you’re really struggling for space, for e.g., if you’re made an error and need to rewrite an answer, do ask for extra paper!
And that’s it! A super long post, but full of information that I wish I’d known at the start of this process. So, hopefully you find it helpful.
Finally, best of luck to your budding biologists!