IGCSE vs GCSE: Key Differences

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The Difference Between IGCSE and GCSE
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Choosing the right qualifications for your secondary education is an important step. Chances are, you are picking between IGCSEs and GCSEs. Both are well-respected qualifications to get you into university and the working world. But the question is, which one is best for YOU? In this IGCSE vs GCSE guide, we’ll break down the subject choices, exam boards, assessment, and other key differences between these qualifications. The goal is to help you choose the option that best meets your interests, academic strengths, and future aspirations.

What is GCSE?

The GCSE, or General Certificate of Secondary Education, is a high school qualification for students in the United Kingdom. Typically taken at the end of Year 11 (around age 16), these exams assess a broad range of subjects students studied throughout their high school years. 

While primarily an English qualification offered in almost all English secondary schools, GCSEs are also available in some schools in India, Australia, and Canada. They typically take two (sometimes three) years to complete at a school, although there are also options for self-directed study at any age.

Earning a GCSE qualification is an important step in a student’s academic journey. The results can influence the subjects they can choose for further study, eligibility for specific university programmes, and even future career prospects. For example, many employers consider GCSE scores in English and Maths as a minimum requirement for job applicants and university entrance.

What is IGCSE?

The IGCSE, short for International General Certificate of Secondary Education, is essentially the overseas or international version of the GCSE qualification. While GCSEs are primarily taken by students in England, the IGCSE is designed for students in other countries. In fact, it is available in over 150 countries worldwide. Both qualifications are intended for students of the same age (14-16) and serve as a starting point for pre-university (such as A-Levels or IB) or higher education programmes.

IGCSE subjects

The IGCSE was first introduced in 1988, two years after the GCSE, with a focus on an international audience. For this reason, it tends to provide subjects with broader global relevance. IGCSE is primarily offered at international and private schools, while GCSEs are the standard in UK state schools.

Just like GCSE, IGCSE is a highly recognised qualification. It can help open doors to a wider range of educational opportunities around the world. Many universities, including those in the UK, consider IGCSE scores when evaluating applicants for undergraduate programmes. Strong IGCSE results can certainly  improve your chances of admission to top universities.

Differences Between IGCSE and GCSE

Considering an IGCSE vs GCSE qualification? Both high school qualifications are valued internationally and share many similarities. Yet, there are subtle variations in terms of assessment methods, subject options, content, etc. Understanding these differences can help you choose the path that best reflects your education goals and interests.

IGCSE vs GCSE Subjects

Most GCSE students take 8-10 subjects. How many you should take may depend on your abilities, future education goals, and school resources. The absolute minimum you should consider taking is 5. No matter how many subjects you decide to study, there is a set of mandatory ones for all the students:

  • English Language (or Welsh for students in Wales);
  • English Literature;
  • Mathematics;
  • Science, including Biology, Chemistry, and Physics.

In addition, some schools may also require students to take foundation subjects, such as:

  • Computing;
  • Physical Education;
  • Citizenship.

Apart from the core and foundation subjects, GCSEs also provide a wide range of options to study. These optional subjects can help students explore specific interests and potentially meet the requirements for admission to a university. Some common categories of optional subjects include:

  • Arts (Art, Music, Drama, etc.);
  • Technical Subjects (Design and Technology, Electronics, Computer Science, etc.);
  • Humanities (Geography, Religious Studies, etc.);
  • Modern Foreign Languages (French, German, Spanish, etc.).

When it comes to IGCSE, it has a more flexible approach to subject selection. For example, there are no mandatory subjects in the IGCSE curriculum. Instead, students have the freedom to choose between 5 and 14 subjects from the following groups:

  • Languages;
  • Humanities and Social Sciences;
  • Sciences;
  • Mathematics;
  • Creative, Technical, and Vocational subjects.

This way, students have a chance to create a personalised programme that aligns with their academic goals. This is particularly beneficial for those who are passionate about subjects that are not available in a standard curriculum.

Still, although IGCSE has no compulsory subjects, a lot will depend on your exam board and the school you attend. Many schools do make certain subjects compulsory, such as Maths, English, or local languages. There can also be set subject combinations. For instance, if you’d like to study Medicine, the mandatory subjects will include Chemistry and Biology.

This is important to note, as if you want to go on and study a particular subject at IB Diploma or A Level, it can be helpful and possibly mandatory in some schools to have studied that subject at GCSE or IGCSE level.

Grading System

While both GCSEs and IGCSEs assess knowledge and skills in a similar way, they utilise different grading systems.

GCSEs have a 9-1 grading system, with 9 being the highest, 1 the lowest, and 4 a passing grade for a subject.

The specific calculation of GCSE grades depends on the subject and exam format. Generally, it reflects the total number of marks you achieve on the exam paper adjusted for the overall performance of all students who took the same paper in that session.

When it comes to IGCSE, there are currently two grading scales that depend on the exam board:

  • Cambridge IGCSE still predominantly uses the traditional A*-G grading, though the 9-1 scale is optionally available in some regions;
  • Pearson Edexcel has fully adopted the new 9-1 grading similar to GCSE.

To calculate a mark in a specific subject, IGCSE also takes into account the total number of marks and adjusts them for overall performance.

If you’d like to compare GCSE vs IGCSE grades, you can use the following conversion:

  • 9 – 7 = A* – A;
  • 6 – 4 = B – C;
  • 3 – 2 = D – G.

Exam Dates

The timing of exams is another difference between the two qualifications.

GCSE Exams are held annually in May and June. If needed, you have a chance to retake exams in November.

IGCSE’s regular exam window is in May-June, with exams also in November and January for specific subjects.

IGCSE and GCSE Exam Boards

Exam boards are organisations responsible for developing and administering the exams. The choice of the exam board affects the exam format (a written exam paper or an exam and coursework), grading system (9-1 or A*-G), and available subject options.

In England, Wales, and Northern Ireland, there are five recognised GCSE boards:

All five boards are regulated by the Office of Qualifications and Examinations Regulation (Ofqual) to ensure consistency and quality across the qualifications.

When it comes to IGCSE, Cambridge Assessment International Education (CAIE) is the most well known exam board. However, Pearson and Oxford AQA offer IGCSE qualifications as well, and are equally well considered in terms of the quality and value of their exams

Course Content

The key differences in course content stem from their intended audiences – GCSEs are designed specifically for English secondary school students, while IGCSEs cater to international students.

For example, in GCSE English Literature, the study of Shakespeare’s works is compulsory. This matches the goal of teaching English literary legacy to UK students. However, this is an optional component in IGCSE English to make it more widely accessible.

Similarly, the GCSE History curriculum has a strong emphasis on British history to provide local students with an understanding of their national heritage. In contrast, the IGCSE History content is more diverse and globally relevant for an international, and multi-cultural audience.

This local versus international approach to content ise a defining factor when choosing between IGCSE and GCSE qualifications. Rarely do individual students get to decide themselves as a school will choose to offer either IGCSEs or GCSEs.

GCSE vs IGCSE Coursework

IGCSE requires no coursework across its subjects. The assessment focuses solely on written examinations at the end of the course to determine a student’s final grade. There are no internally assessed components contributing to the overall marks.

 

In contrast, GCSE subjects have traditionally involved a mix of final exams and internal coursework assessments such as projects, practical work, presentations, oral components etc. However, recent reforms have minimised the coursework element for most subjects.

Most GCSE courses now rely on performance in final exam papers, similar to the IGCSE format. However, some creative and practical subjects like Art, Drama, Music, Design & Technology, etc. still retain a coursework component.

For example, for Physical Education, it’s a 40% coursework and 60% exam split. In Food Preparation and Nutrition, the assessment is an even 50% coursework and 50% written exam. In Music and Art, the role of the coursework is even higher – it contributes 60% to the final grade.

So, while GCSEs have moved towards being more exam-focused like IGCSEs, there are still some subjects that require coursework components.

How to Choose IGCSE and GCSE Subjects

When it comes to selecting subjects for IGCSE and GCSE, there are some key factors to consider.

At state schools in the UK, core GCSE subjects (English Language and Literature, Mathematics, and Science) are for all students to study. In the IGCSE programme, there are no mandatory subjects but your school may still require you to take some (usually, the same set of English, Maths, and Science). So, in terms of core subjects, you don’t have much of a choice of what to study.

Luckily, beyond the core subjects, you have the freedom to make your own study programme. That’s because both GCSE and IGCSE offer a wide range of subjects in various fields:

  • Arts (Art, Music, Drama, etc.);
  • Humanities (Geography, History, Religious Studies, etc.);
  • STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, etc.);
  • Physical Education;
  • Modern Languages.

Overall, you should choose from 5 to 12 subjects. The best advice when choosing is to select those that pique your interest and align with your academic strengths.

For example, if you’re planning to pursue post-GCSE qualifications (such as A-Levels or IB Diploma) or enter a university, it makes sense to take the subjects required for your desired programmes. Many universities have specific GCSE subject requirements for their courses – make sure to check their admissions information carefully to ensure you choose the right subjects.

At the same time, you need to remember that universities prioritise the quality of your grades over the sheer number of subjects you take. The best strategy here is a well-rounded selection of disciplines in which you can achieve strong results. A smaller number of subjects with top grades will hold more weight than a larger number with mediocre performance.

Is IGCSE or GCSE Better for Your Child?

The decision between IGCSEs and GCSEs can be a significant one for a student’s academic journey. While both qualifications offer a strong foundation for further education, they cater to different needs and aspirations.

Reasons to Choose IGCSE

If you reside outside the UK, IGCSE is the natural choice. Thanks to global recognition, the qualification is a preferred option for international students pursuing higher education or careers abroad.

Another benefit of IGCSE is a wider range of subjects. Alongside more traditional subjects, you can find unique options like Accounting or Business Studies. Access to both core and vocational options allows for creating a more personalised learning experience taking into account diverse interests.

As we have already said, there is no coursework in IGCSE. This approach may better suit students who are more comfortable with an exam-focused assessment.

Despite these advantages, IGCSE is not for everyone. The qualification is only available in private schools outside the UK. This means that many families simply cannot afford tuition fees. The cost of exams might be a barrier as well – a full set of exams can go above £1000.

Reasons to Choose GCSE

GCSE, in contrast, is significantly more affordable. The qualification is available in both state and private schools, and the cost of all exams is typically less than £ 400. Apart from that, GCSE is a better option for students planning to stay in the UK for higher education. That’s because the qualification is specifically designed for the UK curriculum, ensuring in-depth coverage of subjects like British history and literature.

subjects for gcse

On the downside, GCSE has a narrower range of subjects compared to IGCSEs. This might restrict students’ options, particularly for those with specific academic interests.

Ultimately, the decision should factor in the student’s academic interests, future goals (such as studying in the UK vs internationally), learning preferences, as well as practical considerations like subject options and costs. It’s best to consult advisors in the schools you’re considering to decide what is best for your specific situation.

Conclusions

Choosing between IGCSEs vs GCSEs isn’t a one-size-fits-all decision. What’s good for you may not be the ideal choice for someone else. Ultimately, the best path depends on your academic goals, preferred learning approaches, and future career aspirations.

Do you dream of studying abroad or working internationally? The wider range of subjects and global recognition of IGCSE might be a perfect fit. No matter which qualification you choose, having a strong grasp of the material is key to success. TutorsPlus can help you approach your high school journey with confidence. Our highly qualified IGCSE tutors will provide the necessary tools and support to let you achieve your full potential, from tailored learning plans to one-on-one lessons.

Call us today at +41 022 731 8148 to learn more about our tutors and how they can help you excel in IGCSE or GCSE.

International GCSE vs GCSE FAQs

Is IGCSE or GCSE Ideal for Students’ Career Goals?

When it comes to IGCSEs and GCSEs for career goals, there’s no single ideal option. Both qualifications are well-regarded stepping stones to further education and employment. Still, the choice of the ‘best’ one should depend on your specific plans.

One more thing you should consider is access to niche areas. Thanks to a wider array of options, IGCSE makes it possible to learn such subjects as Accounting or Business Studies. This expanded selection allows for exploring specific interests and career paths from an earlier stage.

Do Universities Prefer IGCSE or GCSE?

Both IGCSEs and GCSEs are widely accepted for entry by universities in the UK. There is no outright preference for one over the other.

The prestigious Russell Group of universities, which includes Oxford, Cambridge, LSE, Durham etc., has confirmed that they make no distinction between IGCSEs and GCSEs when considering undergraduate admissions.

Are IGCSEs and GCSEs Equivalent?

Yes, IGCSEs and GCSEs are considered equivalent qualifications by universities, employers, and academic institutions around the world.

While there may be some minor variations in subject curricula or assessment formats, the overall rigour and value of both qualifications are on par with each other.

Is IGCSE Harder Than GCSE?

There is an ongoing debate about whether IGCSE is harder than GCSE, with arguments on both sides.

Traditionally, IGCSEs placed more weight on final exams compared to GCSEs, which had a larger coursework component. This led to a perception that IGCSEs were harder as performance rested solely on exam day. However, recent GCSE reforms in the UK have also shifted towards being more exam-focused, thus minimising this difference.

There is also a point of view that GCSE is more challenging than its international counterpart. According to some reports, it is easier to achieve top grades like A/A* in IGCSE compared to equivalent 9/8/7 grades in GCSE. However, there are no conclusive data to back these statements up.

The UK government made its own contribution to the controversy around the two supposedly equal qualifications. It has stated that IGCSE may not meet the same rigorous standards as the latest GCSE. That’s because GCSE is offered by state schools in the UK, while IGCSE is only for private and independent schools. As a result, IGCSEs may provide an “unfair advantage” to privately educated students, fuelling the perception that they are “easier“. However, this view has been strongly challenged by education bodies and examination boards.

In Which Countries Can You Take GCSEs and IGCSEs?

GCSE is an English qualification, meaning you can take it in England, Wales, and Northern Ireland (Scotland has different qualifications). It is also available in some Commonwealth countries, such as India or Canada.

The international version of GCSE, IGCSE, is taught in 150 countries around the globe. If you wish, you can take it in the UK instead of GCSE. However, while GCSE is available in state schools, IGCSE is only for private and independent schools.

What if I don’t Pass My IGCSE or GCSE Exams?

You didn’t get the grades you were hoping for in your IGCSE or GCSE exams? Don’t panic! The good news is, there is an option to retake exams. More specifically, you can choose to retake the entire qualification or just specific sections (units) that you’d like to improve.

In most cases, you’ll have the opportunity to retake GCSEs and International GCSEs in November of the same year (if offered) or the following summer. This allows you to retake exams alongside other students and benefit from a structured learning environment.

When it comes to compulsory subjects (Maths, English, etc.), you must receive a minimum of 4. If you fail to obtain this grade, you need to continue studying these subjects until you pass or turn 18.

If you received a grade of 3 or lower and are entering part-time studies (150 – 539 hours), you are able to take a functional skills qualification instead of a GCSE retake.

Before you make a decision, you need to remember that resitting exams comes at a price. Also, many universities and colleges have requirements regarding exam retakes – you need to check how they might affect your admission.

By Sara Lloyd

Sara has been an education consultant for TutorsPlus for 15 years, and is an expert on international IB education.  She is also a parent of two lively children.

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