IGCSEs vs GCSEs: Which is Harder and Why?

In GCSE by Think Student Editor1 Comment

As exams approach, pupils are wondering: what can I do to make this revision more effective? Perhaps some are regretting not starting revision sooner. Others are wondering why they didn’t pick a different subject or research another exam board. Many young children are also curious about why they are doing this particular qualification. The two main qualifications taken by 14- to 16-year-olds in the UK are IGCSE and GCSE. GCSEs or IGCSEs are a minimum requirement for most jobs as well as further education. They are also the only confirmed grades received by the university on your application. 

The IGCSEs or International General Certificate of Secondary Education are considered by most to be equivalent to the GCSEs or General Certificate of Secondary Education. IGCSE’s were historically thought to be much harder due to their similarities with O-Levels and a greater grade percentage being based upon the final exam. While GCSE focused also included coursework. But when GCSEs were reformed in 2015, more rigorous content was introduced and a great deal of coursework was removed. However, some believe that rather than matching the difficulty level of IGCSE’s this has in fact made the reformed GCSEs more difficult than IGCSEs. 

In order to decide which is harder, you must make your own judgments on the content of each course and how they are assessed. Still confused and considering which secondary school qualification is best for you? Then continue reading to find out more about IGCSEs and GCSEs. 

Are GCSEs Harder Than IGCSEs?

General Certificate of Secondary Education, more commonly known as GCSE, is the standard course and examination taken by pupils in the UK. 

Many argue that the increasing number of private and independent schools that offer IGCSEs, as an alternative to the national curriculum of GCSEs, suggests that the latter is likely to have a higher level of difficultly.  

This opinion is shown and further developed in this article on the guardian by Toby Helm. The key difference between both courses is the lack of rigorous coursework in the GCSE qualification.  

IGCSEs were made for international pupils and so they lack the intensive coursework that is found in many GCSE subjects. Due to them being aimed at non-English speaking countries as well as Britain. Another reason for the increasing opinion that the International GCSEs are easier is the flexible annual schedule for when exams are available.  

Resitting an IGCSE course is generally found to be more difficult than resitting a GCSE course. This is because GCSE resits are only available in November, after the main exams in June.  

Many see the fact that independent schools offer and promote the IGCSE qualification to their pupils as unfair as this same option is not available to pupils in state schools. This may mean that pupils from private schools are more likely to get into universities that consider GCSE and IGCSE exam results as equivalent.  

A comparison between GCSEs and IGCSEs was conducted in 2019 by the Department of Education. This study found that it was easier to achieve a grade A in English Language and English Literature in IGCSEs, due to the grading curve. While most other subjects appeared to be roughly equivalent, and some sciences had fewer high IGCSE grades.  

Are IGCSEs Harder Than GCSEs?

International General Certificate of Secondary Education, more commonly known as IGCSE, is recognised to be an international qualification at the same level as GCSE or General Certificate of Secondary Education. 

Before changes to GCSE were first introduced in 2017, the IGCSE was often compared and considered to be more similar to the older O-Levels qualification than the current GCSEs.  

For this reason, IGCSEs were often argued to be a more difficult examination since O-Levels were taught at a higher level. The study mentioned previously by the Department of Education suggested that it is harder to achieve a grade A in science subjects under IGCSE. 

Also, high grades in IGCSE are conceived by some people to be more difficult to achieve than high grades in GCSE as IGCSE grades are solely based on the final examinations at the end of the course, due to the reduced or lack of coursework. 

How Were GCSEs Reformed?

A large development of GCSEs took place in 2015-19, which saw a complete renovation of the content and structure of the General Certificate of Secondary Education qualification. 

The new qualifications included a lot less coursework than the older GCSE qualifications. Assessment was shifted to be mainly by exam, with other types of assessment used only in specific subjects.  

Newer and more demanding content, developed by the government and the exam boards, was introduced. Modular courses were replaced with linear GCSEs. This meant that rather than students writing exams throughout their two years of learning, all of them would be taken at the end of the course.  

In reformed GCSEs, exams can be split only into ‘foundation tier’ and ‘higher tier’ to increases the adaptability to different students’ abilities. Finally, resitting opportunities were decreased for the English language and Maths qualifications, to only be available in November. 

The reformed GCSEs also included a conversion of the A* – G grading systems to a new number-based grading scale of 9 to 1, with 9 being the top grade 

The switch was made as a way to distinguish between the new reformed General Certificate of Secondary Education and the older qualifications. Schools had been teaching the newer reformed GCSEs for three to four years, before the shift in grading systems.  

Is the Content of the Courses Different?

The topics discussed in each qualification and the way in which they are assessed are the main contributors to the difficulty level of each qualification. 

Coursework is a type of assessment used only in some subjects, when specific skills need to be tested that cannot be assessed through an exam. It is written or practical work done by a student during a course of study, that counts towards a final mark or grade. 

Final examinations are written test papers meant to assess specific skills and knowledge of students within a set time period. There may be more than one of these for one subject and each one lasts an average of 2 hours, with some exceptions such as Art which lasts 10 hours long. 

In the past, the assessment of GCSEs included far more coursework and less rigorous content than IGCSEs, whose content was similar to the O-Levels. However, after the renovation of GCSEs, a lot of coursework was taken out and more content was included. This means that both qualifications have around the same amount of content now. 

Although, since IGCSEs are International GCSEs, they are more adaptable to English speaking countries which is shown historically by the lower amount of coursework. Also, in the current day as some topics particular to British education, such as Shakespeare in English literature, are not included in the IGCSE course. 

Is the Grading System the Same for IGCSEs and GCSEs? 

Both IGCSEs and GCSEs are graded by the 9-1 system and grade boundaries are set within exam boards to decide grades.  

When discussing the leniency in grading systems of each qualification, many believe it is easier to achieve an A* in IGCSEs than GCSEs shown in this survey conducted by education data labs 

Though universities and schools view them as equally challenging and of the same level shown by this response by Cambridge discussing the equal leniency of IGCSE marking. 

In the past, the grading system had not always been 9-1. Both GCSEs and IGCSEs used to be graded by the A*, A, B, C, D, E, F and G grading system with a 9th grade “U” signifying “Ungraded”. Then, there was a relatively recent change, in 2017 – 18, from the A* – G system to the 9 to 1 grading. 

Equivalents to the previous grades are shown below: 

Number-based Grading  Letter-based Grading 
9  Grade A* 
8  Grade A* 
7  Grade A 
6  Just above a Grade B 
5  Between grades B and C 
4  Grade C 
3  Between grades D and E 
2  Between grades E and F 
1  Between grades F and G 
U  Ungraded (below G) 

After each individual student’s paper is marked, grade boundaries are set. These are done within exam boards. This is because, although it is unlikely, the difficulty level of the exam may vary between exam boards meaning that if grade boundaries were set using all grades from all boards, an inaccurate and unfair result would be given. The boundaries are set by senior examiners, who use judgement, statistics, and expertise. 

Which Exams Boards Do GCSEs and IGCSEs?

Aside from the difficulty of the content between these two qualifications, there are a few other differences, one of which is the Exam Boards that are available for either course. 

There are three Exam Boards that carry out IGCSE’s and these are Cambridge International Assessment or CIA, by which the qualification was developed, Pearson Edexcel, and Oxford AQA. 

However, there are many more available for GCSE. The five available exam boards are AQA (The Assessment and Qualifications Alliance), OCR (Oxford Cambridge and RSA Examinations), Pearson Edexcel, CCEA (Council for the Curriculum, Examinations & Assessment) and WJEC (Welsh Joint Education Committee). Although, not all subjects are included by all Exam Boards. 

Aside from some vary in subjects, there are very minor differences if any between these exam boards within one specific subject. 

Which Countries are GCSEs and IGCSEs Written In?

GCSEs are taught and written in England, Wales, and Northern Ireland while Scotland has a separate system of qualifications. Although some independent schools within Scotland offer GCSEs. On the other hand, IGCSEs are available for writing and studying in many more countries than GCSEs as they are recognised to be the International General Certificate of Secondary Education. 

Similar to GCSEs, IGCSEs are also written in the United Kingdom but they are also written widely in international schools. They can be written in India as well, in the month of February. They are also written under the Edexcel and Cambridge exam board in Hong Kong as well as Singapore, Malaysia, the United States and around 150 other countries. 

This means that IGCSEs are more adaptable to different countries than GCSE’s shown by the optionality to cover Shakespeare in the English Literature qualification. This is also shown by the load of coursework. Historically, there has always been a reduced amount of coursework in most IGCSE qualifications with more focus being on final exams in order to adapt to non-English speaking countries. 

When are GCSE and IGCSE Exams Taken?

GCSEs are sat by 14- to 16-year-olds in Year 11. Children generally start learning the course in Year 10, though some independent schools start earlier – in Year 9. However, the exact time of the year at which the examinations are written varies between and within both courses: 

Person Edexcel IGCSEs are examined bi-annually in May/June as well as November. 

Oxford AQA IGCSEs are written at the same time as Edexcel: bi-annually in May/June as well as later in November. 

Finally, Cambridge International GCSEs are conducted in February (in India only), May and later in October. 

GCSEs are generally written in May/June, for all exam boards as well as Mathematics and English Language being available in November. 

How Many GCSEs / IGCSEs Can You Take?

Due to the very similar level of difficulty, the number of IGCESs or GCSEs you can take are the same. The vast majority of students study 9/10 GCSEs although some choose to do 11. They will be awarded five GCSEs in the core subjects, which are English Language, English Literature, Maths, Science (2/3 GCSEs).  

Additionally, students then choose 4 subjects to be awarded GCSEs in. Students may also choose to supplement these with a first language GCSE when they speak a first language, with an available GCSE, that is not English. 

What Subjects Should You Take for GCSE / IGCSE?

As well as deciding between both courses and which exam board, the subject which you are taking these courses for are incredibly important. Also, it is important to decide the particular subjects you are interested in taking before researching the details as there may be minor differences within subjects that may impact you.  

The subjects offered also depend upon the exam board but they are similar between and within both qualifications. The subjects you can choose from also depends greatly upon the school which you go to as schools can’t offer all possible subjects. 

What Subjects Do IGCSEs and GCSEs offer? 

  • Maths (compulsory) 
  • English (compulsory) 
  • Separate Sciences (or Dual science are compulsory) 
  • Dual Science (or separate sciences are compulsory) 
  • First Language courses of Arabic, Chinese, English, French, German and others 
  • Second language courses of Afrikaans, Chinese, English, Hindi and others 
  • Foreign language courses of Arabic, Chinese (Mandarin), Dutch, French, German Greek and many others 

And GCSE offers all of the above as well as a few others that are not offered by IGCSE including: 

  • Dance 
  • Astronomy 
  • Electronics 
  • Statistics 
  • Psychology 
  • And many others 

Still haven’t found a specific subject that you love? Check out this full list of available IGCSE subjects under CIA. Find out more about the available GCSE subjects on this collection of subject content by the government. 

What Other Qualifications are Equivalent to GCSE / IGCSEs?

In Scotland, which uses its own system of secondary education, National 5 awards are done during the time of GCSEs, 14–16-year-olds. These are graded using a letter scale with a numbered band scale within each letter grade.  

This scale is starts with A Band 1 being the highest and equivalent to an A* and then A band 2 being equivalent to an A. It continues on like this with B band 3 being a higher B and N band 4 being a lower B etc. This continues until D band 7 which is just below a C but still considered a pass. 

Students generally do 6 or 7 of these awards. They can take a minimum of 5 and some independent school do up to 8 in one sitting. There are many subjects available – more than both IGCSEs and GCSEs. Find a full list of available Nat 5 subjects here. This award is offered by only one exam boards called Scotland’s National Qualifications more well-known and SQA. 

Are GCSEs and IGCSEs important?

As a minimum requirement for almost all jobs and university courses, GCSEs or International GCSEs are arguably the most important qualifications you can do. Studying GCSEs provides you with an essential foundation in a range of subjects especially the core subjects English Language and Mathematics. 

Both IGCSEs and GCSEs are highly-regarded secondary qualifications that are accepted by top-ranking universities all around the world and other educational institutions both in the UK and beyond. 

Can You Retake IGCSEs and GCSEs?

Whether someone originally failed or got a score they were unsatisfied by, many people a year would like the opportunity to have a second chance at their final GCSE or IGCSE exams. 

Anyone can retake their GCSEs, regardless of age or previous experience. You can enrol to resit your GCSEs at a local school or college. In order to be prepared to resit the GCSE subject or subjects you would like; you will be given a timetable to attend GCSE classes with others in your year. 

Some GCSE subjects can be resat in a November and January period as well as the main May and June period – whenever you feel ready.  

International GCSEs can also be resat, in the same way and time as GCSEs. If the course involved coursework, then you can carry that forward and just re-sit the exam. Additionally, IGCSEs candidates can also ask for a retake entry. This is when the candidate took the same syllabus in the exam series immediately before the current one. 

What Happens After GCSEs and IGCSEs?

After you complete either of these qualifications, what is the next step? It’s further education. The General Certificate of Education Advanced Level (GCE A-Level, or more commonly the A-Level), is an academic qualification taken in England, Wales and Northern Ireland by students completing further education.  

Further education refers to secondary or pre-university education, after GCSE and IGCSE level. Pupils generally complete three awards of subjects in depth with the grading system being a letter scale and A* being the top grade. 

Another option available in several independent private school is the IB Diploma Program. This is for high school students, specifically those ages 16-19. Pupils generally complete six of these. The grading system is a number point system with the perfect score being 45 points and with anything above 24 guaranteeing an award. 

On the other hand, in Scotland and Wales, children are able to leave at the age of 16 to get a job. In England children must complete higher education but they are able to do this without staying on at school or going to college – they can get a job with a training element to it, but they cannot work full-time without some training. Though there are government funding programs available to those who wish to stay on at school but cannot afford it financially. 

In Scotland, after the GCSE level, which is done as National 5 awards, students who decide to continue further education do Higher and Advanced Higher awards.

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Paul barrett
Paul barrett
2 years ago

High school? In the UK? We don’t have high schools in the UK we have secondary schools. You must know that you’re a journalist.