The Difference Between GCSEs and IGCSEs

While you’ll certainly have heard of GCSEs, you may not have come across IGCSEs before. If you’ve recently entered the world of home educating (or perhaps private school) you might be wondering what IGCSEs are and how they differ from GCSEs.

For more details about taking GCSEs and IGCSEs as a home educator have a look at my posts about How Homeschoolers take GCSEs and the cost of taking GCSEs when homeschooled.

Summary of the Difference between GCSEs and IGCSEs

In the realm of secondary education, the choice between GCSEs (General Certificate of Secondary Education) and IGCSEs (International General Certificate of Secondary Education) isn’t something you have to think about if your child attends a state school. While some Private schools use IGCSEs, all mainstream UK schools use GCSEs so the decision is pretty much made for you. If you’re a home educator, you have the freedom to choose which you take and a number of factors will impact that decision.

GCSEs, primarily administered in the United Kingdom, are a standardised set of exams that assess students’ knowledge and skills in various subjects at the secondary level. IGCSEs, as the name suggests, have an international focus and are recognised worldwide. In general IGCSEs don’t have a coursework element or any practical requirements and this makes them a better choice for homeschoolers for some subjects.

A note on language: In my posts, I refer to “homeschooling”. In the UK, the correct term for educating your child at home is “home Educating”, with homeschooling referring to a child doing work at home that has been set by school. I use the the term homeschooling in my posts because many people who are new to home educating will use the term homeschooling when searching online and I want to make sure they can find the information.

Regulation of GCSEs

GCSEs are subject to strict regulation within the UK educational system. They are governed by regulatory bodies such as Ofqual in England, Qualifications Wales, and the Council for Curriculum, Examinations, and Assessment in Northern Ireland. These bodies ensure that GCSEs maintain consistent standards, syllabi, and assessment methods across different exam boards. Scotland uses its National Qualifications instead of GCSEs.

Regulation of IGCSEs

In contrast, IGCSEs are managed by two international exam boards, Cambridge Assessment International Education and Pearson Edexcel. While these boards maintain rigorous standards, the regulation of IGCSEs differs from one board to another, allowing for greater flexibility in terms of content and assessment methods. This adaptability often appeals to a global audience.

Recognition of GCSEs

GCSEs are widely recognised within the United Kingdom, serving as the primary qualification for students completing their secondary education. They are accepted by universities and employers across the country as a reliable indicator of a student’s academic abilities and subject proficiency.

Recognition of IGCSEs

IGCSEs, on the other hand, have gained global recognition and acceptance. They are acknowledged by universities and employers worldwide, making them a popular choice for international students or those planning to study abroad. The international nature of IGCSEs provides a broader scope for future academic and career opportunities. 

They are directly equivalent to GCSEs and so if a job or course requires a certain number of GCSEs at a certain grade, you can directly substitute IGCSEs. I had never heard of IGCSEs before I began home educating and that is likely the case for most people outside of the education system. This means that you (or your young person) might sometimes need to explain them.

image for linked Facebook group, text reads "homeschooling and home education information and support UK" with blue border

Which Is Harder, GCSEs or IGCSEs?

The question of whether GCSEs or IGCSEs are more challenging is subjective and depends on various factors. Both qualifications aim to assess students’ knowledge and skills effectively. However, some argue that IGCSEs may be more academically rigorous due to their broader international perspective and exposure to diverse teaching methods and assessment styles. It is essential to consider individual learning preferences and goals when deciding which qualification to pursue. Essentially there is little difference in the level of difficulty between the two.

Why Do Homeschoolers Often take IGCSEs?

Home educators are responsible for arranging their own exams. While it is in no way compulsory for them to take exams, many do choose to. For some GCSE subjects there are practical elements required that can be difficult for homeschooled children to achieve. 

Where practical elements are required an exam centre needs to sign off to say these have been completed. They will only do this if a learner has completed the practical elements with an official partner who they have a relationship and therefore trust. This is because if it turned out that the practical elements hadn’t been done, the exam centre may no longer be able to offer exams from that board.

Which Subjects do Homeschooler Usually take as IGCSEs?

Most homeschoolers take science subjects as IGCSEs as the science GCSEs require lab work to be undertaken. English language is often done as an IGCSE as there is a speaking element required for the GCSE which, although it can be done at some exam centres, will add to the cost of the exam.

Geography is also usually taken as IGCSE because of the field work element required for the GCSE.

There are also a few subjects only available as IGCSE including Environmental Management and Accounting.

Which Subjects can Homeschooler take as GCSEs?

For a number of subjects, it is straightforward for home educators to take either the GCSE or the IGCSE. These include, Maths, English Literature, History, Psychology, Religious Studies, Languages, Sociology, Business Studies, Travel and Tourism, Ancient history and Economics. 

Some subjects are only available as GCSEs and a limited number of exam centres offer them to private candidates (candidates taking the GCSE outside of the school system) by working in partnership with a tutor. Examples of these subjects are music, dance, drama, art, media studies, film studies and food technology.

Choosing Between GCSEs and IGCSEs

In one way this choice is a good thing but it can also leave you a bit overwhelmed. Essentially you need to look at the syllabus for the GCSE and the IGCSE. While the GCSE syllabus will be the same no matter which board you choose, the IGCSE will vary by exam board. There are two main exam boards and in some cases they each offer more than one option and because they aren’t regulated by the government, the content will vary. It’s also useful to look at past exam papers and see what sort of learning resources are available for each syllabus. 

We’ve just been through this process for maths and have chosen Edexcel IGCSE. Our reasons were that the IGCSE allows you to use a calculator for both papers and the question wording for Edexcel looked more user friendly.

If you don’t think GCSEs or IGCSEs are right for your child you might want to look at some alternative qualifications.

girl taking an exam, text reads: The difference between GCSEs and IGCSEs

Leave a comment