Some facts about International GCSEs

Some facts about International GCSEs

Posted by: Kate Keating, Posted on: Categories: exams

Reflecting on recent interest in the comparability of GCSEs and International GCSEs, this blog provides further information about the two types of qualification and how they operate in England.

  1. International GCSEs and GCSEs in England are different qualifications. GCSEs are based on content specified by the government and must be assessed in line with Ofqual’s rules. The awarding organisations that offer International GCSEs each decide the content for those qualifications and how that content is assessed, which may legitimately be different to GCSEs.
  2. In England, International GCSEs have not counted in school performance tables since the corresponding reformed GCSEs became available. In the UK, therefore, International GCSEs are mainly taken by students in independent schools.
  3. International GCSEs are also taken by many thousands of students across the world.
  4. Awarding organisations can decide whether their qualifications are regulated. Our Register of qualifications shows the qualifications we regulate and, where relevant, the date at which we will cease to regulate a qualification. Some International GCSEs have never been regulated by us; some have been regulated by us in the past, but are no longer; and some are currently regulated by us (see list below). By 1 April 2020 we do not expect to be regulating any International GCSEs.
  5. On our Register of qualifications we describe the few International GCSEs we still regulate as ‘Level 1/2 certificates’, although the qualifications are still more generally known as International GCSEs. We cannot require awarding organisations to change the name of unregulated International GCSEs. Our description reflects our view that the qualifications, when regulated, are at levels 1/2, as are GCSEs. Like other qualifications at this level, the grades are not necessarily aligned with GCSE grades.
  6. We accredited new GCSEs to check that they covered the government’s expected curriculum and met the carefully designed rules around assessment we put in place. We can also be confident that grade standards between GCSEs offered by different exam boards align and that standards are maintained over time.
  7. Previously, when International GCSEs were taken by large numbers of students in maintained schools, we had information about their prior performance. We used this to compare some grade standards in International GCSEs and GCSEs for the qualifications awarded in 2015 and 2016. We found differences which varied by grade, awarding organisation, subject and year. For example, in one English/English language specification, the International GCSE was around two thirds of a grade easier at grade A and around a fifth of a grade easier at grade C, while in another specification the International GCSE was closely aligned at grade A and around a tenth of a grade easier at grade C. In English literature, on the other hand, there was a mixed picture, with evidence that some grades were set more generously but others were more severe. There was no systematic pattern.
  8. We cannot re-run this analysis now that students in maintained schools do not take International GCSEs because we do not have sufficient data on students’ prior performance – most students now taking International GCSEs did not take key stage 2 tests.
  9. Results for any qualification will reflect the cohort of students who took each qualification. For example, the most highly attaining students are likely to take physics GCSE rather than combined science GCSE. Proportionately more top grades are awarded in GCSE physics than GCSE combined science. This does not mean that GCSE physics is easier than GCSE combined science. We cannot draw conclusions from the grades awarded in an International GCSE and the corresponding GCSE because we do not have data on the prior performance of the International GCSE cohort. Even if we had such data, differences between the content and assessment arrangements of GCSE and International GCSEs mean that grades in the respective qualifications would not necessarily represent achievement of the same knowledge, understanding and skills.
  10. We have no powers to intervene in qualifications that we do not regulate. Organisations do not have to comply with our rules when they offer unregulated qualifications and we cannot consider concerns or complaints about such qualifications.

Amidst the recent discussion, it is important to remember that GCSEs and International GCSEs are not the same qualifications, and so we believe it is not possible to say with any precision how the standards of the two compare. Awarding organisations may of course conduct their own comparative analysis or benchmarking.

People should be careful when using GCSE and International GCSEs interchangeably if exact comparability matters to them. However, we recognise that such precise comparison might not be an issue for everyone. Universities and employers are used to seeing many different qualifications on applications and deciding what value they place on them.

International GCSEs can have a particular value for students outside of the UK for whom the content prescribed for students in England might be less relevant. We recognise the export market for English qualifications is vibrant and we are pleased to be working with the Department for International Trade to improve the information available to international purchasers about the range of those we regulate.

These Cambridge International qualifications, described on our Register as Level 1/2 certificates, will be regulated by Ofqual until 1 April 2020

Qualification Name QN Number Syllabus Code
Certificate in Art and Design 500/5658/X

Certificate in Music 500/5679/7

Certificate in Information and Communications Technology 500/5649/9

Certificate in Business Studies 500/5702/9

Certificate in Enterprise 600/1959/1

Certificate in Geography 500/5652/9

Certificate in History 500/5656/6

Certificate in English Literature (9-1) 601/5295/3

Certificate in Computer Science 601/3120/2

Certificate in English as a Second Language 500/5653/0 0511
Certificate in French 500/5642/2

Certificate in German 600/0714/X

Certificate in Spanish 600/0769/2

Certificate in Italian 600/6585/0

Certificate in Greek 500/5680/3

Certificate in Mandarin Chinese 600/2572/4

Certificate in Biology 500/5871/X

Certificate in Chemistry 500/5701/7

Certificate in Physics 500/5660/8

Certificate in Mathematics (9-1) 601/5294/1

Certificate in First Language English (9-1) 601/5296/5


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  1. Comment byWilson Kempposted on

    Only in the UK could such a disjointed "system" for educational qualifications exist. The undisputed fact that "examination boards" or whatever name they are using at the moment, can opt to have all, some or none of their qualifications "regulated" makes a very close parallel with regulation in the discredited financial services jungle. In the latter, an organisation can be "regulated" for some of their financial offerings (and acquire a coveted FCA logo), but not for others. The public sees the respected logo of regulation, buys an unregulated product, and loses their life savings. Surely the education world can do better than this?


  2. Comment byDavid Sheppardposted on

    This should be called 'some facts, some advice and some opinions' about International GCSE. The paragraph starting 'People' contains advice and opinion. Where you use 'can', this is an opinion.
    You are factually aware of the proportion of students with KS2 outcomes who take International GCSEs and could provide that information. Could You do that please?


    • Replies to David Sheppard>

      Comment byKate Keatingposted on

      Thanks for your message David. As we outline in our blog, the pool of students taking these qualifications, who also took key stage 2 (KS2) tests, is too small to provide precise comparisons. For example, in one International GCSE English qualification fewer than 20% of the 886 pupils could be matched to KS2, and in one International GCSE maths qualification – although around 70% of pupils could be matched to KS2 – the entry was very low, at around 100. This is one reason why it is not possible to say with any precision how the standards of these two different qualifications compare. Awarding organisations may of course conduct their own comparative analysis or benchmarking


  3. Comment byJeremy Hoarposted on

    Thank you for this interesting post. Can I ask what the position regarding the IGCSEs offered by Pearson Edexcel is, please. Will they only be regulated until next April as well?


    • Replies to Jeremy Hoar>

      Comment byKate Keatingposted on

      Hi Jeremy. The one remaining regulated Pearson International GCSE had its final assessment opportunity last year. Hope that helps.


  4. Comment byAndrew Hallsposted on

    One way to look at the value of an IGCSE as compared with a GCSE in the same subject would be to compare the IGCSE (and of course GCSE) outcomes with those the same pupils achieve at A level. Then you could do this with pupils from any sort of school, so long as they have continued with studies to A level. I suspect you would find that the IGCSE results did not, in comparison with A level outcomes for the same pupils two years later, in any significant way overstate or understate the ability of the pupils compared with GCSE.


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