What are the examination boards of the British System?

The educational system in the United Kingdom is globally renowned for its rigour and quality, with examination boards being one of its fundamental pillars. Here, we detail which ones exist, the role they play within the British educational system, how the quality of teaching is ensured, and their impact beyond the borders of the United Kingdom.

What are examination boards?

In the United Kingdom, examination boards (exam boards) are responsible for setting and awarding educational qualifications such as IGCSEs, A-Levels, and vocational qualifications.

These entities are crucial in the British educational system, as they not only set the assessment criteria and content for courses but also administer the exams and award the final qualifications.

All exam boards operate under the supervision of regulators such as Ofqual (Office of Qualifications and Examinations Regulation) in England, which ensures that the qualifications and exams are fair and consistent.

Currently, there are four main exam boards:

  • Pearson Edexcel: Notably, it has an international version, the International Edexcel IGCSE and International Edexcel A-Levels.
  • Cambridge: Like Pearson, it has an international version, the Cambridge International IGCSE, and the Cambridge International A-Levels (CIE).
  • AQA: Last year, they introduced an international version, the Oxford AQA International Qualifications.
  • OCR (Oxford Cambridge and RSA): This exam board is less used outside the United Kingdom.

What role do the exam boards play?

Exam boards in the United Kingdom play an integral and multifaceted role within the educational system, ensuring not only the quality and standardisation of education but also offering educational institutions flexibility and autonomy in implementing their academic programs.

  • Management of curriculum and exams: Although the basic curriculum for each subject is established by the Department of Education, exam boards are tasked with developing and administering the specific details of this curriculum. This includes creating course materials, defining assessment criteria, and preparing the exams that will ultimately determine students’ competence in various subjects.
  • Autonomy for schools: British schools have the option to choose from various exam boards for each subject they offer, allowing them to select the one that best aligns with their pedagogical approach and the specific needs of their students. This flexibility is crucial as it allows educational centres to differentiate themselves from each other in terms of academic offerings and specialisations.
  • Quality standards and consistency: Exam boards are responsible for maintaining high standards of quality and consistency in assessments. This is vital to ensure that the qualifications obtained by students are recognized and respected both nationally and internationally. The rigour in evaluation ensures that students who complete their education under any of these entities are well-prepared for future academic and professional challenges.
  • Innovation and continuous improvement: In addition to their traditional roles, many exam boards are at the forefront of educational innovation. They actively participate in research on best teaching and assessment practices and frequently update their programs and assessment methods to reflect new pedagogical advances and the changing needs of society.

What are the main examination boards?

Pearson Edexcel

Pearson Edexcel is widely recognized both nationally and internationally. It provides academic and vocational qualifications that are globally recognized and valued by employers and educators worldwide.

Among its most popular offerings are:

  • International GCSEs
  • A-Levels
  • BTEC

One of the distinctive features of Pearson Edexcel is that it offers a modular type qualification, known as Pearson Edexcel International A-Levels. This allows students to be assessed at different stages throughout their course, which can help manage the workload and improve knowledge retention over time.

Pearson Edexcel’s qualifications are highly respected and recognized by universities around the world for their high quality and academic rigour. Students who earn these titles are highly regarded in university admission processes and professional environments.

Cambridge Assessment International Education

Cambridge Assessment International Education (CAIE) is part of the Cambridge Assessment department of the University of Cambridge group and is one of the most prestigious and recognized examination boards worldwide.

Cambridge International offers an extensive spectrum of programs and qualifications, including:

  • Cambridge Primary and Cambridge Lower Secondary
  • Cambridge IGCSE
  • Cambridge O Levels
  • Cambridge International AS & A-Levels

Typically, Cambridge International offers examination sessions twice a year (May/June and October/November), providing students with multiple opportunities to demonstrate their learning. This flexibility is particularly valuable for students who need to improve their results or who are looking to adapt their education to non-traditional academic calendars.

Cambridge International’s qualifications are recognized by universities and employers worldwide, facilitating graduates’ continuation of their studies at higher education institutions or their insertion into competitive work environments.


AQA (Assessment and Qualifications Alliance) is known for its commitment to quality education and assessment. It offers a wide range of general and vocational qualifications designed to facilitate students’ education and prepare them for future success, whether in higher studies or in the labour market.

  • GCSEs
  • A-Levels
  • Vocational Qualifications

AQA organises its examination sessions mainly twice a year, during the summer and winter, allowing students to tailor their preparation to these key periods. These sessions are designed to maximise students’ preparation and to integrate assessment effectively within the annual academic calendar.

Although AQA is a UK-based examination board, its qualifications, especially the A-Levels, are internationally recognized by universities around the world. Additionally, it recently has its own international version. This allows students who obtain these qualifications to effectively compete in the global arena both for university admission and in the professional field.


OCR (Oxford, Cambridge and RSA Examinations) is recognized for its innovative approach to assessment and the development of qualifications. As part of Cambridge Assessment, OCR offers a wide range of general and vocational qualifications for students of different ages and levels.

  • GCSEs
  • A-Levels
  • Cambridge Nationals and Cambridge Technicals

Similar to other examination boards, OCR organises examination sessions mainly during the summer and winter, aligning its evaluation cycles with the traditional academic calendar.

OCR is constantly working on developing new qualifications and reviewing existing ones to ensure they reflect the latest pedagogical advancements and the changing needs of society and the labour market.

Examination boards outside the United Kingdom

British education enjoys international prestige, driven by the quality of its educational system and the reputation of its universities. Therefore, the examination boards offer international versions of their programs, intended for schools outside the United Kingdom.

These versions are often considered stricter than their local counterparts, and their qualifications are globally recognized.

What is the difference between international examination boards?

Each of the international examination boards has unique characteristics:

IGCSE and IAL Pearson Edexcel

IGCSE (International General Certificate of Secondary Education) and IAL (International A-Levels) Pearson Edexcel is known for offering an extensive variety of subjects. This approach allows students to access a wide range of disciplines that they can choose according to their interests and future academic goals.

One of the distinctive features of the IAL Pearson Edexcel is its modular approach. Unlike other systems that assess students with exams at the end of two years of study, the modular approach allows students to be assessed on independent modules throughout their academic course.

Oxford AQA International

Oxford AQA International is one of the newest examination boards in the education sector, notable for its innovative approach to student assessment.

This organisation has earned recognition for its commitment to a fair assessment method, known as the “fair assessment approach”. This approach is designed to ensure that all students have equal opportunities to demonstrate their knowledge and skills in a fair and consistent manner.

The “fair assessment approach” of Oxford AQA International focuses on equity and transparency in examinations and assessments.

Like other international examination boards, Oxford AQA International offers several examination sessions throughout the year, providing students with the necessary flexibility to adapt their studies and preparation at a pace that suits them best and is most effective.

Cambridge International Examinations

This entity is known for its autonomy and comprehensive approach to exam administration, distinguished by its independence from the Joint Council for Qualifications (JCQ) in managing and supervising its assessments. This allows it greater flexibility and control in the design and implementation of its educational programmes.

In its A-Level courses, Cambridge International is characterised by having fewer papers or tests per subject compared to other examination boards. This means that each exam can cover a wider range of topics, which requires students to have a deep and well-integrated understanding of the course material.

Despite its modular approach, Cambridge International generally offers only one examination session a year, in May/June. This structure concentrates the assessment in a specific period, allowing students and schools to prepare in a focused and structured manner.

British examination boards

The examination boards of the United Kingdom offer considerable flexibility to students in terms of assessment and academic progression.

Furthermore, all the examination boards also offer the Extended Project Qualification (EPQ), a project that allows students to explore in depth a particular topic of interest beyond the A-Levels, developing research and critical writing skills that are highly valued in higher education.

Written by

Virtus The British Sixth Form College

Virtus The British Sixth Form College

Virtus, The British Sixth Form College is an innovative Sixth Form College devoted to academic excellence and holistic education. We specialise in A-level with an average of 5 students per class.

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