What are IGCSEs? Edit

IGCSEs are UK public examinations, equivalent to the GCSE. IGCSE simply means International GCSE. You sit the exams at an exam centre, just as you would for GCSEs. They are almost exactly the same as GCSEs, except they do not have compulsory coursework. They were developed for use in international schools but have now become popular in UK Independent schools, and from 2010 were approved for UK state schools while GCSEs were reformed.

Now the new 9-1 GCSEs have been introduced, state schools have to use those. This means UK state schools will no longer gain league table points for IGCSEs , although the government said that this will be reviewed after the new GCSEs have become established. Many independent schools are continuing to use IGCSEs while they wait to see how the new GCSEs turn out, and home educators may do likewise, although we also have the option of the new GCSEs where they do not involve speaking assessments etc. Note that the change to state school performance tables doesn't stop home-educated students taking IGCSEs. The qualifications are still available , although some syllabuses are being changed. Edexcel will be introducing new IGCSEs graded 9-1 in maths and English for first exams from 2018 and for other subjects after that. See below for more details.

The UCAS guide to UK qualifications - Universities Admissions Service explains GCSE equivalence in its UCAS 2015 UK qualifications guide . See p86 for IGCSEs., where it says IGCSEs are considered grade-for-grade equivalent to GCSEs.

What are Level 2 Certificates? Edit

The Edexcel , AQA and CIE Level 2 Certificates were the accredited version of IGCSEs for UK state schools. In nearly all cases, they were the IGCSE examination entered under a separate code for state schools. See our page on Level 2 Certificates for more information.

What are the advantages of IGCSEs for home educators?Edit

The advantage of IGCSEs is that most subjects have an option to do exams only, with no coursework or Controlled Assessment. This means you can study completely independently. Many home educators simply study from the textbook, practise with past papers and sit the exam when ready. IGCSEs are very highly regarded by educational institutions; in fact, many independent and grammar schools use them because they give a better grounding in a subject, particularly if leading on to study at A level.  This is particularly noticeable for maths and the single sciences, where the factual content of IGCSE goes further than GCSE.  For instance, IGCSE maths includes calculus, whereas GCSE maths does not.  On the other hand, GCSE may include more discussion of "real life" problems in maths and the sciences.

Which exam boards offer IGCSEs?Edit

There are three exam boards that provide IGCSEs:

  • AQA Certificates (IGCSEs) - introduced some IGCSE-style exams for a few years but discontinued them from Summer 2017. As their core market is UK state schools, AQA did not become established in the International GCSE field. The only IGCSE they are retaining is their Further Maths Certificate.

The British Council says this about the boards:

"What is the difference between Edexcel International Examinations and Cambridge International Examinations? 
Both Cambridge International Examinations and Edexcel International Examinations are the most renowned international boards offering different qualifications to students such as IGCSE, GCE O Level, AS level and A Level. The specifications of syllabuses might differ but both of them are recognized by colleges, universities and employers all around the world."

Do colleges accept IGCSEs? Edit

Usually sixth-form schools and Further Education colleges know what IGCSEs are and accept them without any questions. You should not expect to have any problems.There have been a few exceptions and, so far, members of the home-education exams network have been able to resolve these situations. Here are some of the situations where colleges have queried IGCSEs:

16-19 Funding - English and Maths condition of funding Edit

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The college may not be up-to-date with the latest guidance on funding at 16-19, which is understandable because it has not been easy to follow. Since funding guidance changed in 2014, students who did not have GCSE English and maths at grade C or above would have to continue studying an approved course in those subjects as a condition of the college receiving funding for them. The government guidelines state that IGCSEs meet the conditions. Full details and references are on our page about IGCSEs and 16-19 College Funding.

Screenshots of the relevant sections are on this page (up-to-date as of September 2018), and the text includes the following  :

"International GCSEs, regulated or unregulated, or equivalent level 1/ level 2 certificates in maths and English all count as equivalent to GCSEs for the purposes of recognising prior attainment in the 16 to 19 maths and English condition of funding.

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Students who hold these qualifications in maths and English at GCSE grade 9 to 4 or A* to C will not have to continue their study of these subjects."


Colleges querying standard of IGCSEs Edit

The college may be unfamiliar with IGCSEs, especially if it offers mainly vocational courses. In one case, the college had apparently only previously seen Level 1 IGCSEs (ie an IGCSE at grade D-F), which are equivalent to a GCSE grade D-F. In this situation the parent may have to show the college more information about IGCSEs, eg the UCAS guide to UK qualifications, and perhaps speak to the college's subject tutors and ask them to look at the syllabus so they can see how it compares to the GCSE. In many cases the IGCSE syllabus goes beyond the GCSE syllabus.

In a few cases, some college staff have argued that IGCSEs are 'easier' than GCSEs, while others say they are harder. The Guardian wrote about this in 2018, and the Times Educational Supplement had one article saying "Universities’ GCSE demands favour private school pupils", then the next day one saying "There's absolutely no evidence that IGCSEs are easier". One Member of Parliament has a political campaign against IGCSEs because she does not agree that independent schools should be able to use a diferent qualification from state schools.

Pearson Edexcel's letter to the Chair of the Education Select Committee regarding IGCSE standards.

Pearson Edexcel statement on IGCSE standards and comparability

How easy or difficult a qualification seems can vary between students. An exam format which suits you seems easier than one which doesn't. What we can say about the standard of IGCSEs overall is:

  • The Department for Education states in its current guidance on recognition of prior attainment that :

"International GCSEs, regulated or unregulated, or equivalent level 1/ level 2 certificates in maths and English all count as equivalent to GCSEs for the purposes of recognising prior attainment in the 16 to 19 maths and English condition of funding. (see above for refs)

  • Many independent schools still enter students for a mixture of IGCSEs and GCSEs according to which they feel provides better preparation for A-level.  
  • UK universities all treat IGCSEs as equivalent to GCSEs for demonstrating prior attainment.
  • NARIC, the agency for validation of international qualifications, has reviewed Pearson Edexcel International GCSEs and Cambridge IGCSEs and found both to be comparable in standard and grading to regular GCSEs.   

NARIC review of Pearson Edexcel International GCSEs April 2019:

"..similarities are clearly observed between the GCSE and International GCSE in relation to qualification size and duration, content, learning outcomes and assessment across all subjects... Assessment objectives reveal similarities in the scope and balance of assessed skills across the different subjects between the GCSEs and International GCSEs. A review of sample assessment materials and mark schemes highlights similarities in the volume of assessment, question types, command words and cognitive skills assessed... Marking processes... Its implementation and setting of grade boundaries follows the same process to that established for the GCSEs, ensuring that grades 9-1 represent comparable standards of achievement in both qualifications."


Naric stated in its 2016 review of Cambridge IGCSEs:

"Having reviewed the IGCSE in depth, UK NARIC finds the IGCSE to be a rigorous and robust international lower secondary-level qualification, underpinned by sufficient quality assurance policies and procedures in place to maintain standards...

For the IGCSE subjects analysed in this study, there is little notable difference between the IGCSE aims and learning outcomes with those found in similarly-focussed GCSE syllabuses. In catering for an international audience, minor differences in IGCSE subject content, assessment methods and assessment weightings have been observed with UK GCSEs in certain subjects, but on the whole has little, if any, overall impact on the comparability of the IGCSE in the UK education system...

Identification of similar examination tasks and mark schemes across a range of IGCSE and GCSE subjects confirms that the breadth and depth of knowledge, understanding and skills that the IGCSE develops and assesses compares very well to the national GCSEs examined in this study."

English A-level Admissions Edit

There have been some cases where colleges had particular requirements for people applying to study A-level English. Some IGCSE English language syllabuses do not include a literature analysis component (CAIE First Language English IGCSE and Edexcel IGCSE English specification B). The college may be concerned that a student with no experience of exams in literary analysis would not be able to cope with English A-level, which is primarily based on literary criticism.

If you want to study English A-level, consider taking English Literature as well as English Language. This demonstrates that you have experience of exams in literary analysis. The new 9-1 GCSEs in English literature are exam-only, with no coursework element, so they are available to external candidates. This means you have the choice of GCSE or IGCSE English Literature.

Having problems? Edit

If you run into any problems with a college querying whether IGCSEs are acceptable, please ask on the HE-Exams community email or Facebook group, where members may well be able to help.

If your local college is querying IGCSEs, you could ask them to be your exam centre so that you can take GCSEs in the relevant subjects. For example:

"Home-educated students in our area take IGCSEs in certain subjects where we cannot take the GCSE equivalent, because schools will not give us exam centre access to take the non-examined components such as English speaking and listening tests.  If your college has a formal policy of not accepting the only qualifications which are available to children with non-standard educational backgrounds in these subjects, would you consider acting as an examination centre for such children and allowing them to take the non-examined assessments at your centre?"

How are IGCSEs regarded by universities and employers? Edit

IGCSEs are treated just like GCSEs by universities and employers. From 2010 to 2017, many state school pupils took IGCSEs in school and the distinction is not normally commented on. Beyond 2017, IGCSEs continue to be used by many independent and international schools as well as by external candidates, so there is no reason to believe this will change.

NARIC Report on IGCSEs Edit

NARIC, the UK's national agency which compares international qualifications to UK ones for the benefit of employters and universities, gave a report on CIE IGCSEs in 2016. The report included the following statements:

Having reviewed the IGCSE in depth, UK NARIC finds the IGCSE to be a rigorous and robust international lower secondary-level qualification, underpinned by sufficient quality assurance policies and procedures in place to maintain standards...
For the IGCSE subjects analysed in this study, there is little notable difference between the IGCSE aims and learning outcomes with those found in similarly-focussed GCSE syllabuses. In catering for an international audience, minor differences in IGCSE subject content, assessment methods and assessment weightings have been observed with UK GCSEs in certain subjects, but on the whole has little, if any, overall impact on the comparability of the IGCSE in the UK education system...
Identification of similar examination tasks and mark schemes across a range of IGCSE and GCSE subjects confirms that the breadth and depth of knowledge, understanding and skills that the IGCSE develops and assesses compares very well to the national GCSEs examined in this study.

Universities Edit

Universities and employers treat IGCSEs just the same as GCSEs; the editor is not aware of any situation where this has not happened. When you are applying to universities, GCSEs and IGCSEs are of less relevance than Level 3 qualifications, such as AS- and A-levels and BTec Level 3 diplomas, for example. Many universities require you to show basic English language skills and GCSE or IGCSE English is a standard demonstration of this.

Some universities make an explicit statement:

Manchester University:

"The University accepts International GCSEs (IGCSEs) as equivalent to GCE GCSEs and accepts them on a grade for grade basis.
In terms of different examining boards, we will continue to accept International GCSEs from the main examining boards and will not make a distinction between them in terms of offers made or grades required."
University College, London (UCL):

GCSE and equivalent qualifications
All programmes require GCSE or equivalent passes in English Language and Mathematics at grade C or higher. Some programmes require grades higher than C or additional GCSE passes in specific subjects, as outlined on individual degree pages.
For the new GCSE, which will be given a numerical grade between 1 and 9, UCL will consider 8 to be equivalent to A*, 7 to A, 6 to B and 5 to C.

Qualifications accepted as GCSE equivalents include the following:

  • IGCSE at grade C or higher;

London School of Economics (LSE):
Information regarding use of GCSE and equivalent qualifications
If you have taken GCSEs or equivalent qualifications, these will be taken into account when we assess your application. All applicants are expected to have at least grade B in GCSE English Language and Mathematics or the equivalent, although exceptions are made for applicants with extenuating circumstances.
As competition for places at LSE is intense, we look for applicants who have achieved highly at GCSE (multiple A or A* grades), particularly within the context of their school.
Some programmes require grades higher than B in GCSE Mathematics and these are outlined in the individual programme entries.
Bristol University: "We accept IGCSEs as equivalent to GCSEs."

Durham University:

Does Durham University recognise IGCSEs as proof of English Language proficiency?

Yes. Durham University recognises the IGCSE as proof of English Language proficiency, and currently asks for grades A*-C.

University of Southampton  'We still accept the IGCSE as equivalent to the GCSE and will continue to do so without disadvantaging students (and likewise, the International A level).'

What about IGCSEs with A*-G grading, when GCSEs have moved to 9-1? Edit

Some politicians have been saying (2018-2019) that it is unfair for independent schools to use IGCSEs which still have A*-G grades, when state schools have to use GCSEs with 9-1 grading. A grade 9 is the highest part of an A*, so superficially it looks like those using A*-G grades will get more top grades. Some teachers have been saying that this means unis will actually discriminate against those who have A*-G grades because an A* is not necessarily as good as a 9. There doesn't really seem to be any evidence that either claim is true. This is only really an issue for the 2017 - 2019 academic year as most IGCSEs are available with 9-1 grades from 2018/2019.

Cambridge (CAIE) Exam board lists statements from various universities Isaying that they will not discriminate against applicants with A*-G IGCSEs. Some of them also made explicit general statements about treating IGCSEs as equivalent to GCSEs regardless of the grading system.

Visa English Requirements Edit

Please note that overseas students who require a student visa will need a different qualification to prove that their English level is sufficient for UK Border Agency requirements. Some confusion has arisen over this because, in the past, CIE IGCSE English Language was part of the Border Agency scheme for demonstrating English language proficiency. CIE withdrew their qualification from the scheme because meeting the UK Border Agency security requirements was too difficult. Note that GCSE English and other IGCSE English qualifications were not part of the scheme anyway. UCAS 2015 UK qualifications guide - see p85 for IGCSEs.

Independent Schools using IGCSEs Edit

It is often said that IGCSEs are popular with independent schools, so I trawled through school websites to find out if this was indeed the case.  I found that the vast majority of independent schools checked did use IGCSEs for some if not all subjects - most commonly English, Maths and Sciences.  The results of this brief, ad-hoc survey are listed on a separate page. Schools using IGCSEs.  Suffice to say that IGCSEs are good enough for Eton, Winchester and Wellington, amongst many others!

Changes to IGCSE Syllabuses Edit

CIE and Edexcel are both introducing new IGCSE syllabuses which will follow the new 9-1 grading system for GCSEs.

CIE have developed new IGCSEs graded 9-1 in English and maths , but their current A*-G IGCSEs remain available.

Edexcel are replacing their IGCSEs with new format ones. They have put a useful document about their planned IGCSE updates online. Here is an extract from the most relevant bit:

Subject update

First teaching from September 2016 (first assessment May/June 2018)
English Language A Mathematics A
English Language B Mathematics B
English Literature Further Pure Mathematics
First teaching from September 2017 (first assessment May/June 2019)
Chinese Geography Biology*
French History Chemistry*
German Physics* Physics*
Spanish    Human Biology*
English as a Second Language    Science (Double Award) *


General Links and newspaper articles on IGCSEs Edit

IGCSEs and their role in the independent school sector explained - 'The exam cheating controversy shows the system is fraught with danger - but teachers must still set papers'Barnaby Lenon, The Telegraph

Independent schools continuing with IGCSEs at start of GCSE reforms. - The Spectator, 14 March 2015 

'Jury is out on whether the new GCSEs will demand more than their international rivals' - Times Educational Supplement, 12 Feb 2015

Private schools should drop 'less challenging' IGCSEs, says Education Secretary. Writing for the Telegraph, Nicky Morgan says she is confident that independent schools will revert to conventional GCSEs after a toughening-up of the exams.

League tables branded a 'nonsense' by private schools - BBC 29 January 2015

Dozens of private schools branded failures in controversial new league tables - The Telegraph, 29 January 2015. "Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference says that without the inclusion of IGCSEs official rankings are “absurd”, as many top performing independent schools drop to the bottom of the tables"

The Department for Education

"Up until now, only independent schools were able to offer iGCSEs in English, mathematics, science and ICT, which are widely respected and recognised by universities and employers. A number of the high-performing state schools have expressed an interest in offering these exams, but were prevented from doing so – even where accredited by Ofqual – by restrictions the previous Government had in place."

Cambridge International Examinations responds to DfE decision on performance tables


"Manchester Grammar School is the fourth independent school to move over entirely to the International GCSE, and increasingly private schools are offering the qualification in at least one subject.
Manchester Grammar School is already offering IGCSEs in maths, biology, chemistry and physics, and will offer it in seven more subjects from September.
It says the IGCSE is simply a more rigorous assessment.
It is based predominantly on final exams, and the school says this provides more of a challenge to the brightest students.
From this September the ordinary GCSE will be reformed, with the element of coursework largely replaced by "controlled assessments" done under supervised conditions within schools.
And it will become more modular, allowing pupils to re-sit certain parts to improve their marks.The headmaster of Manchester Grammar School, Dr Christopher Ray, says the impending changes convinced him to move away from GCSEs completely. "Controlled assessments are cumbersome and time-consuming and restrict the ability of schools like MGS to provide inspirational teaching for the most able pupils," he said." [Article continues, but that's to give you a flavour.]

BBC: IGCSEs - an end to the national curriculum? - very thorough article on background to the IGCSE 

Independent: IGCSE numbers rise rapidly in independent schools

"A dramatic increase in the number of independent schools ditching GCSEs is revealed today in figures showing their exam results.  They show a 33 per rise rise in the number of entries for the rival IGCSE - based on traditional O-level lines and considered by many heads to offer a better preparation for tackling A-levels in the sixth-form."

Daily Mail: Teenagers secretly taking O-levels because GCSEs are 'too easy'

Independent: Independent schools deserting A-levels and GCSEs.

"A survey by the Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference – which represents 250 of the country's elite former boys'-only schools such as Eton and Harrow – shows two-thirds are now offering the IGCSE in at least some subjects... with headteachers saying they regard the alternative exam as more academically testing than GCSE and therefore better preparation for A-levels.  Asked about their future plans, it emerged that about 80 per cent would be offering the IGCSE within the next three years."

Independent: The appliance of real science: Should all children take the IGCSE?

"Parkside Federation is the first state school to offer the more demanding IGSCE, to replace the 'dumbed down' alternative.....worried at the gulf opening up between GCSE and A-level, many independent schools took things into their own hands and moved over to the more rigorous IGCSE, ..pupils enjoy the greater emphasis on practical experiments in the IGCSE course, and its more logical approach to building up their knowledge..Part of the attraction is that the IGCSE does not have any "meaningless" coursework, says David Perks, the head of physics at Graveney School, a comprehensive in Wandsworth, south-west London. "The current GCSEs spend far too much time pandering to concerns other than the coherence of the subject, and half the time they seem to make no sense at all," he says. "I want to teach radioactivity, not debate whether nuclear power stations are a good idea."

I shouldn't have done IGCSEs - Guardian article in which a student argues that IGCSEs are not suitable for all students.  Interesting discussions in the comments section.

Telegraph - More schools switching to tougher IGCSE alternative , followed a couple of weeks later by 'Schools moving to 'easy' IGCSE to boost grades' ! Appears to be some controversy over the fact that some IGCSE syllabuses still offered coursework options as with GCSEs a few years ago. These coursework options are not available to home-educated students as exam centres will not usually provide this service for external candidates.  

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