Comparing domestic and International GCSEs

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Considered to be one of the most popular international curricula in the world, the International GCSEs and A Levels are studied in over 10,000 schools by over a million students in 160 countries. Over 1,400 universities worldwide recognise A Level qualifications. They are accepted by every UK university, by 600 universities in the US (including all the Ivy League universities) and in many other major student destinations, such as Canada, Australia, Singapore, Germany and the Netherlands.

The International GCSE curriculum and examinations are based broadly on the curriculum and structure of domestic equivalents, most notably the GCSE and GCE A Level. However, the international equivalents are not tied to the U.K.’s national curriculum, which means there are differences in both structure and content.

 Domestic GCSEInternational GCSE
Course contentDesigned more for a primarily British audience which is reflected in certain topics covered in some subjects.Designed for international students and recognition
Exam datesAnnual exams in May-June with resits in NovemberAnnual exams in January, May-June and November
AvailabilityOnly available in the UK and a small number of schools in Canada, Australia and India.Available internationally in over 160 countries.

Curriculum Structure

Like the GCSE equivalent, the International GCSE is not a “certificate of education,” rather it is a qualification based on examinations in individual subjects of study, with IGCSE qualifications and grades issued for each subject taken, much like Advanced Placement examinations in the United States.

The pathway is fairly straightforward and starts in Year 11 or earlier with students sitting up to 6 subjects. These subjects are structured as first introductions to the specific topic areas that they cover. In certain countries, students begin in Year 10 and sit 8-10 subjects over the course of two years.

In Year 11, students move on to the A Levels that are further broken down into two parts: the AS Level, called “Advanced Subsidiary”, (usually done in Year 11) and A2 Level (typically done in Year 12). Traditionally, students take 4-5 AS Level subjects and then go on to take 3-4 of those subjects at the A2 Level. If you choose to take an AS Level subject and its exams without sitting the A2 Level the next year, you won’t complete the A Level qualification and instead receive just the AS qualification. The AS qualification also counts towards university entrance in Australia. 

Assessments and Exams

The International GCSEs are 100% externally assessed through a set of examinations at the end of your study. The same is true for most AS and A Level subjects besides arts courses like Drama, Music or Photography. There are usually three exam dates in the year giving students flexibility based on their schedule. Plus, this gives students the opportunity to resit exams if they feel they have underperformed.

During an examination series, students sit a number of individual exams (known as papers) for a single subject. Each paper has a specific weighting defined in the syllabus of every course. The weighted average of these papers will be the student’s final grade. Edexcel International lets students resit certain modules within each subject, giving multiple opportunities to get the best possible score.

On the other hand, the domestic GCSEs adopt a modular approach to assessment rather than the linear one. Schools have a more internalized approach to assessing the domestic subjects as well.

Grading

Several moves have been made to make the domestic and International GCSEs more comparable to each other. One of these is to equalize the grading scale, making it easier to compare grades across the board.

Pearson Edexcel International GCSEs are awarded using the new nine point grading scale (9–1), introduced by the UK government to raise standards and recognise top-performing students. As part of this new system, each student’s raw mark is scaled on a bell curve against the performance of all other students taking the exam. Simply put, this means that you don’t have to get 90% of the questions correct to end up getting a 90% on your report card. Your scores are relevant to those of your peers.

In the AS and A2 Levels, students receive grades after their examinations at the end of every module. Their final average grade is the weighted average of the modules they sit during the AS and A2 portions by a predefined weighting that you can find in each subject’s syllabus online. Students receive both a percentage grade and a letter grade on their completion certificates and it is this letter grade that is most often used in university admissions.

Benefits of the International GCSE

  1. International recognition for top universities worldwide
  2. Better preparation for the A Levels
  3. Skills development that will help later in life
  4. Opens more opportunities for students
  5. Passing language tests for emigration or studying abroad

Which one is the right choice for you?

If you reside in the UK and are not planning to go abroad for university, the domestic GCSE would be fine. However, the International GCSE is the right choice if you planning on going to an international university. It also helps you better prepare for the A Levels and is recognized for its rigor by top institutions.


Crimson Global Academy is an international, global online high school that allows students to accelerate their studies based on their ability rather than age. Learn more here.

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Crimson Global Academy

Crimson Global Academy

CGA is an online high school, connecting students with top faculty in small, virtual classrooms. Students join global peers, studying the A-Level, AS-Level, International GCSE curriculum as well as the Advanced Placement (AP) qualification. We are synchronous. Our small, virtual classrooms are ‘live’ no matter where you live in the world, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.