Difference between IGCSE, GCSE, A levels, O levels, and the National Curriculum for England


I was looking at some of the British schools for my daughter who is currently in Grade 9 in a CBSE school. But unlike the Indian Curriculum, I don’t find one centralized board system in British schools. I don’t really understand the difference between  IGCSE, GCSE, A levels, O levels, and the English National Curriculum. I would be really grateful to you if you could help us out with this.


Gayatri Param
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gayatri8 Default Asked on April 5, 2016 in Curriculum.
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Dear Gayatri,

You have identified the reason for all the confusion!  Traditionally, the English National Curriculum referred to the curriculum taught in England and Wales throughout Primary and Secondary schools until year 10 (when children at aged 15 study the two year GCSE exam programme).

GCSE stands for General Certificate of Secondary Education.  Previously known as GCE ‘O’ (for Ordinary) level, (as opposed to GCE ‘A’ for Advanced and taken at aged 18), GCSE exams are offered by a number of different Exam Boards in the UK (Cambridge, Edexcel and AQA probably being the best known).  The standard of the exams is generally believed to be the same (with the possible exception of Cambridge), but the content may vary somewhat dependent on the curriculum set by the Board.

IGCSE (as in International) was set up originally by the Cambridge Board to offer a more internationalised version of the GCSE programme. This is increasingly being offered by UK curriculum schools based overseas.  There is some debate as to whether the IGCSE programme is as rigorous at the GCSE and the jury is probably still out on this.  This has in part been driven by the fact that some subjects are more assessment driven, rather than examined.

At aged 16, students sit the (I)GCSE or GCSE exams.  Post 16, they study for GCE A Levels.  This programme is also being changed currently with the traditional A1/AS exams taken at the end of the first  year either being done away with altogether, or being treated as a stand alone qualification.  Previously, the A1/AS result counted towards the final A2/A level result (required for University entrance).  Going forward, only the examinations at the end of the 2 year programme will be considered.  The impact of this is that students will not have the possibility of re-sitting the A1/AS exams in order to improve their overall grade.  Some schools are considering no longer offering A1/AS exams, but many universities consider them an essential tool to determine the eventual A2/A level outcome and are keen that schools should continue to offer them.

I would suggest that the key consideration when looking at the options is whether you plan for your daughter to go to university and if so, where.  If you are considering the UK, GCSE may be the better option (although increasingly UK schools favour IGCSE).  If this is less likely, then you should probably consider the range of subjects taught and content in order to choose the most appropriate options for your daughter.

Apologies for the long explanation – your question was simple; the answer is not!

WhichSchoolAdvisor Head of Department Answered on April 7, 2016.
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