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What is an IGCSE?

An IGCSE (International General Certificate of Secondary Education) is a qualification that is typically offered to students during their high school years, with the examinations for these taking place at the age of 16, although it is possible to study for these qualifications at any age. Whilst they are internationally recognised and internationally renowned, very few people know what an IGCSE is. What is an IGCSE? What is the difference between an IGCSE and a standard GCSE qualification? And which of these qualifications is the right choice for you? To help you answer these questions, and so many more, here’s everything you need to know about IGCSEs:

What is an IGCSE

If you live in the UK, then it’s likely that you’ll be familiar with the General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE) concept. GCSEs are subject-based academic qualifications that almost all students will sit at the end of their compulsory academic career. This usually takes place at the age of 16 or in school year 11. It takes between two and three academic years to complete GCSEs in school, although it is possible to study for GCSEs at any stage of life, and they are particularly popular courses for distance learners. In 2021, there were 4,810,000 GCSE entries for 16 year old’s, in total.

IGCSE stands for International General Certificate of Secondary Education. It offers the same level of education as a traditional GCSE, but without a UK-centric curriculum or context. The IGSCE was intended to increase the relevance of the GCSE qualification for an international audience and was first conceived in 1988, just two years after GCSEs were first introduced. In 2021, Nearly 240,000 students from 146 countries were awarded IGCSE qualifications.

IGCSEs and GCSEs are very similar, with the IGCSE recognised as the international equivalent of the GCSE. Whilst both qualifications are traditionally studied by young people at the age of 16, there is no age limit to either qualification, meaning that they can be sat by students that are both younger and older than this.

Exam officer in IGCSE sitting

IGCSE Vs GCSE – The Key Differences

Whilst IGCSE and GCSE qualifications are considered to be very similar, there are some key differences between the two qualifications. Here is a full breakdown of ways in which the two qualifications differ:

  • GCSE examinations can only take place in the UK, where they are offered by state, private, and independent schools. By contrast, IGCSE examinations are available in over 150 countries. This includes the UK, where you can sit IGCSE rather than GCSE examinations if you prefer. Both qualifications do tend to be studied at age 16, and both take approximately 2 years of study to achieve
  • As well as examinations, many GCSEs have coursework as a core component of their assessment criteria, but by contrast coursework is included in very few IGCSE subjects. Those subjects that do require coursework tend to be ‘hands on’ subjects such as art and design
  • GCSEs now use a number system of grading, with nine being the highest available grade and number one being the lowest. IGCSEs still use a letter-based grading system (this used to be used for GCSES too) with A*being the highest available grade and G being the lowest
  • The course content between GCSEs and IGCSEs can differ greatly. Each qualification offers contextual and cultural differences, with IGCSEs removing any UK-specific content from their curriculum. This will be more apparent in some courses than others, with both Geography, History, and English Literature being key examples of courses where the curriculum for the IGCSE will be very different from the curriculum offered to GCSE students
  • If you sit GCSEs then your examinations will take place annually in May and June. Maths and English language GCSE exams can also be sat in November. If you study for IGCSEs then your examinations can be sat in November and January, with some additional subjects offering extra examination periods in May/June

Despite these differences, there are many more similarities between GCSEs and IGCSEs than differences. If your planned academic route involves attending university, for example, then it’s important to note that UK universities will recognise and accept both qualifications. In fact, Uk universities don’t distinguish between the two: they are treated as identical and equivalent qualifications when used as part of the university application process. When assessing the pros and cons of IGCSE vs GCSE, then, your ability to use your qualifications to enter university should not be a factor in your choice.

Is IGCSE Harder Than GCSE?

There are many different opinions on the subject of which qualification is harder to attain: IGCSE vs GCSE. The answer to the question is likely to depend on whether you prefer to be assessed by coursework or by examination. Historically, IGCSEs have been much more exam-based qualifications, whilst GCSEs have involved more coursework, submitted throughout the duration of the study period. With many students preferring a blend of coursework and examination, GCSEs were considered easier, however this changed when Michael Gove reformed GCSEs during his time as Secretary of State for Education. During this reform process, many coursework elements were removed for some subjects, making both qualifications more exam-focused.

The flexible time frame surrounding the examination schedule for IGCSEs might also lead some people to believe that they are easier. You can sit IGCEs in November, January, and May/June, whilst you can only sit GCSEs during the May/June examination window.

The UK Government has stated that IGCSEs are not as rigorous as GCSEs, and do not meet the same high standards, but this view has been strongly attested. According to these reports, the Government believes that it is much easier to achieve top grades in IGCSEs than it is to achieve those same top grades in GCSE examinations, and this has also caused controversy because it is thought to give an unfair advantage to students in private schools. Children in state schools in the UK predominantly study GCSEs, whilst children in private schools and independent schools are more likely to study IGCSEs.

According to an article published in the Guardian, “Top universities are giving privately educated children an unfair advantage by not differentiating between the rigorous GCSEs compulsory in the state system and less demanding exams taken in many fee-paying schools, MPs and educationists have said…It’s an absolute scandal that it is easier to get top grades in IGCSEs than in the new GCSEs, yet universities essentially class them as the same.” It’s important to remember that much of this opinion is not confirmed, and therefore the debate about which of the two qualifications is harder to achieve rages on.

Student preparing for GCSE exam

Subjects for IGCSE and GCSE Compared

If you are attending a state school in the UK then there are some GCSE subjects that are compulsory. These are English literature, English language, Maths and Science, and these are officially known as the ’core’ subjects. Whilst there are no hard and fast rules about how many GCSEs you should study for, most schools will ask that their students take at least five GCSEs whilst the maximum number of subjects for the average student is 12. Very few students will take more GCSEs than this. It’s important to remember that quality is often better than quantity, so picking subjects that will help you achieve your future career goals and studying them well, to the highest-grade levels, is likely to be much more effective than studying too many subjects and achieving mediocre grades.

Outside of the core subjects outlined above, other GCSE subjects are divided into four distinct categories. These categories are:

  • Arts. This will include subjects such as art, music, and drama
  • Technical Subjects. This will include subjects such as Design and Technology, electronics, and Computer Science
  • Humanities. The main humanities subjects that you can study at GCSE level are Geography and Religious Studies
  • Modern Foreign Languages. The main modern foreign languages offered in state schools in the UK are French, German, and Spanish, however, it is possible to study for a modern foreign language GCSE in almost every world language. It is up to each school to decide which languages they will offer to their students. If you want to study a different language, you may have to do so independently

There are no core IGCSE subjects, because these qualifications are not compulsory, however, you can take IGCSEs in those same core subjects: Maths, English and Science. Other popular IGCSE subjects include study skills, geography, humanities, ITC, physical education, and subjects within the creative arts arena. Both GCSEs and IGCSEs offer an incredibly broad range of subjects, so that you are not inhibited by the subjects available. No matter what your career aspirations or future life goals, you will find both GCSE and IGCSE subjects available to help you reach these goals.

Children in the UK are invited to choose their GCSE or IGCSE subjects at a relatively early age. This generally happens in the Spring term in year 9 of secondary school, which is the point at which most students are just 14 years old. Before this period (whilst they are in high school years 7, 8, and 9) those students will have studied all available subjects, to help them to make a more informed decision about which subjects appeal to them most, which they find interesting, and which they have the most aptitude for. However, many young people at this age have no real idea about what their future career aspirations will be. For this reason, many young people simply don’t leave school with the right GCSEs or IGCSEs that they need: in these circumstances, going back to college or opting for distance learning courses is a great way to get the qualifications you need to get back on track once you know what your future aspirations are.

Should I Take IGCSE or GCSE?

So, should you take an IGCSE or a GCSE? That’s a decision that only you can make, although it’s important that you assess the pros and cons of both options and make an informed decision. The first thing to note is that, if you’re based outside of the UK then you are not able to study for GCSES: in this circumstance studying for IGCSEs is your only option, and it is a great option that has the potential to enhance your academic and career aspirations.

When choosing any qualification, it’s important to decide whether it will help you to achieve your future goals: if you want to attend university, will the qualification get you there? Will it help you to meet your career goals? If you’re thinking of living and working internationally, for example, IGCSEs might be the better option for you because they are internationally recognised. In these circumstances, IGCSEs can provide all the benefits of GCSEs, but they have extra benefits too, because you don’t have to have your qualifications transferred in order to continue studying or working overseas.

By contrast, if you aspire to become a teacher in the UK and study for your PGCE qualifications then you may find that studying for GCSEs is a more sensible route for you. Because the vast majority of state schools in the UK offer GCSES, and focus on UK-based curriculums, having a strong base in these subjects, and in these qualifications, would give you a professional advantage when you begin your career.

In reality, the differences between GCSEs and IGCSEs are so minor that there really is no right or wrong. It really does come down to what is right or wrong for you. Before you take any qualification, you should ask yourself the following questions:

  • Do the employers, colleges, and universities I’m thinking of applying for recognise the qualification?
  • Will the qualifications and subjects I’m thinking of studying help me to reach the next stage in my career or academic career?
  • Can I fit the study time for this qualification around my existing employment or family life responsibilities? If I want to enrol in a distance learning course, is this qualification suited to a distance learning environment?
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