Study GCSEs in the UK
Education in the UK is divided into 4 key stages. The last of these, Key Stage 4 (KS4), is taught to children in Years 10 and 11 at secondary school, when they are 14 to 16 years old. The courses studied in KS4 are GCSE and the all-important GCSE exams are held at the end of Year 11.
GCSEs are the main qualification taken by 14 to 16-year-olds, but are available to anyone of any age. You can study GCSEs in the UK in a wide range of academic and ‘applied’ or work-related subjects at a UK school or a UK Further Education (FE) College.
What is GCSE?
GCSE stands for General Certificate of Secondary Education. They are highly valued by schools, colleges and employers.
The qualification mainly involves studying the theory of a subject, together with some investigative work, while some subjects also involve practical work. They are usually studied full-time at school or college, taking five terms to complete.
GCSEs are available in more than 60 subjects and vocational areas.
Entry Requirements to study GCSE in the UK for international students
- 8 years of study
- IELTS 5.0 (This differs in each school)
What are the GCSE compulsory Subjects?
There is some freedom regarding which subjects are studied at GCSE level. But, three core subjects, English, maths and science, are compulsory along with citizenship and PE (although there are no exams in the latter two). All other subjects taken at GCSE are optional.
How many GCSE Subjects should I Take?
In addition to the five compulsory subjects, schools must also provide access to a minimum of one course in each of four ‘entitlement areas’. They must also make it possible for pupils to take one course in all four of these if they wish to do so. The four entitlement areas are:
- The arts (art and design, music, dance, drama and media arts)
- Design and technology (electronics, food technology, graphics, resistant materials, systems and control, textiles and product design)
- The humanities (geography and history)
- Modern foreign language (French, German, Spanish etc.)
Optional subjects for GCSE vary between schools. Some subjects may be restricted and others (particular languages, like German for example) may not be offered at all.
How are GCSEs Assessed?
For GCSEs, you are assessed mainly on written exams and tasks you complete throughout the course, such as:
Different Forms of Assessment
Not all GSCEs are assessed in the same way:
- Art and design, for example, have more coursework and fewer exams
- Some GCSE courses are made up of units where you take exams at the end of each unit
- Other GCSEs involve exams at the end of course
The New GCSE Grading System
The Council for Curriculum, Examinations and Assessment (CCEA) has responsibility for the regulation of qualifications in Northern Ireland.
In summer 2019, the grading changed for all CCEA GCSE qualifications:
- there is now a C* grade
- less people will receive an A*
Other examining bodies, such as AQA, OCR, Pearson or Eduqas use a number-graded structure for GCSE qualifications, where 9 is the highest grade and 1 is the lowest.
Depending on what examining body you’re sitting, you may receive both letters and numbers in your GCSE exam results.
The table below shows how the letter and number grading compare:
There are no changes to A-level (GCE) grading.
What GCSE Grades Do I Need?
GCSEs are the most important exams students take before college or university. The results have a huge effect on pupils’ futures. Many college courses require a minimum of 5 GCSEs at grade 4 or above (C or more in the old grading system) and some demand five grade 6s (A or A*).
Some college courses only accept students with grade 6 or more (A or A*) in that subject for GCSE; and universities often require a minimum of grade 4 (C or above) in English, maths and at least one science before they will accept you for any course.
Post GCSE Progression
Acquiring a GCSE can result in a number of different opportunities, for example:
- Higher Education
If you’re planning to continue your studies to higher education, you may need GCSEs in certain subjects. Most universities and colleges will ask for five GCSEs grades A*- C, including English and maths, as well as A levels or comparable qualifications in case of top tier institutions.
Applied GCSEs are designed to provide a more ‘hands-on’ approach and encourage you to apply your knowledge and understanding of a subject in a practical way. They are comparable in size to two traditional GCSEs.
These GCSEs are assessed to the same standard as the more academic GCSEs, although the work you produce will have a more practical emphasis. You will carry out your own investigations and will often produce a portfolio of work.
These GCSEs can lead to similar progression paths as traditional GCSEs.
Short course GCSEs
Short course GCSEs are designed to give you more options about what and how you study. They are comparable to half a full GCSE, but the standard is the same as a full GCSE. They can be taken in half the time which is about three terms. However, if you learn more slowly than others, you can spread a short course out over the same length as a traditional GCSE.
Short courses also allow more able students to take extra subjects, like a second language. They can also be a useful option if your timetable at school or college prevents you from taking a full GCSE.
These can lead to similar routes as traditional GCSEs. However, if you want to go on to do A-levels, some subjects may require that you have a full GCSE in that subject.
What is the IGCSE?
IGSCE stands for International General Certificate of Secondary Education. It is the most popular international certification for secondary school and it is equivalent to the GCSE, fifth form or year 11 in various respective countries of the world.
IGCSE is designed for pupils whose first language is not English. It’s been around for nearly three decades and is considered the GCSE course for international students in the UK because it’s available in countries across the world, unlike the GCSE, which is only available in the UK (and a few other countries).
The contents taught at an IGCSE course is more akin to the O-level (first year of A-level course) than the UK GCSE and therefore the exams are harder and more rigorous.
IGCSE vs GCSE
Because the IGCSE course is designed for students from around the world, there are some differences in course content. For example, Shakespeare is an optional, not a compulsory, part of the English IGCSE, unlike the GCSE English course, where all students must study Shakespeare.
The GCSE may be taken only in the UK, whereas there are opportunities to take the IGCSE in nearly every country in the world as well as in the UK.
Also, keep in mind that you will not be able to take online GCSE courses due to UK laws. However, you can still apply to take online IGCSE courses with distance education providers instead.
The GCSE is set only in May/ June of each year. But students may sit for the IGCSE also in October/ November, and in India only, also in March.
IGCSE courses do not include coursework as part of their final assessment; a feature which has also been phased out in the new revised GCSE courses in UK.
Apart from that there is no real difference these days. There is a lot of overlap in the syllabuses, both qualifications are the same level, and they are treated as equivalent to one another by all colleges, universities and employers.
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