Types of Qualifications in the UK: GCSEs, A-Levels, IB and CIE

September 27, 2021

GCSE’s, A-Levels, IB – what does it all mean? It’s enough to leave you feeling a bit confused.com, and rightly so. We’ve answered the 8 top questions asked by you. Now, let’s grapple with what each of these types of qualifications are, their differences and how they help you pre- and post-education. 

What is a GCSE?

First on the list of the many types of qualifications we have in the UK are GCSEs. This stands for “General Certificate of Secondary Education” and covers early education. Students study for their GCSE’s during Year 9 to Year 11; although some of the syllabus material might be taught from Year 8. 

There’s a lot of material to cover here, with the majority of students taking an average 10 subjects. This then equates to 10 GCSEs or qualifications. Core subjects that everyone has to take are English, Maths and Science. Sorry, no escaping those until A-Levels (more on that later). 

To make matters slightly more confusing, the government kindly changed the grading system and criteria. What we commonly refer to as an A is now a Level 7 or higher. Why did they change it? We hear you ask. The answer: absolutely no clue! There are rumours that in 2024 they’ll be reverting to the “traditional” grading methods… Do with that what you will.

Why are GCSE’s so important?

GCSE’s are the first test of students’ knowledge and intelligence. It’s absolutely imperative to get at least a grade C (or a Level 4) in at least Maths and English, not just for admissions into college and sixth form, but also internships, apprenticeships and employment. 

There’s been a lot of hoo-ha about whether GCSE’s really are that important. In most cases, they are a barrier to entry. If, for whatever reason, your child decides to leave school at 16, then their GCSE results will be heavily favoured. Similarly, for admissions into sixth form or university, these grades are the only proof of their academic abilities. 

If you’ve noticed that your child is struggling or needs a helping hand in certain topics, whether that’s maths, history or even art, then you might want to consider hiring a tutor to make sure they reach their full potential. Without the necessary qualifications, not passing GCSE’s at the minimum requirement might result in complications for their future education journey or careers.

What are A-Levels?

Moving onto another (semi-compulsory) type of qualification in the UK are A-Levels. These are taken in Year 12 and and 13, between the ages of 16 to 19. The grading scale is between A* to E; a pass rate is usually around 70% in each subject.

Most students will take 3 or 4 A-Levels in subjects of their choice; and can drop one subject at AS after their first year of study. Some universities require specific subjects to gain entry, particularly specific courses like Medicine or Journalism, for example. However, in most cases, students can choose an eclectic mix of subjects based on personal interests.

In terms of entry requirements, this varies too. Depending on the course your child is choosing to study or whether they’re applying to a Russell Group university, entry grades vary from CCC to AAA. So always check individual course requirements and what A-Level subjects are needed to apply.

For more advice on university, personal statements and admissions, take a look at our resources linked here.

What are A-Levels like compared to GCSE?

Unsurprisingly, there is a step up from GCSEs to A-Levels. You’ll hear a lot of people say that A-Levels are the equivalent to university style modules in terms of the work load. It requires a lot of independent study and time management. 

There is a lot of pressure riding on A-Levels, for both higher education and employment. It’s a very competitive environment, requiring much more dedication from students. A-Levels are meant to be more fun than GCSEs, as students can finally specialise in subjects they really enjoy. Yet that doesn’t mean it’s any less difficult! 

A lot of students consider private tuition to help them achieve their target grades and better prepare them for their A-Level exams. If this is something you’re interested in, why not book a free trial call with a tutor to learn more? This could be just the golden ticket your child needs to succeed in their studies.

What is IB and what does it stand for?

IB stands for International Baccalaureate, or more commonly known as international education for those aged between 3 to 19 years old. 

There are four programmes taken in IB studies, ranging from primary level to career-related courses. In each of these programmes exist six modules, all based on philosophies that best match the year groups they teach. This includes: studies in language and literature, foreign language study, social studies, sciences, maths and creative arts. 

IB vs. A-Levels: which is harder?

As mentioned above, students only take 3 subjects for A-Level. But IB studies require students to take 6 subjects. The math speaks for itself here, but that requires almost double the effort and workload from students. 

The short answer is: IB is much harder than A-Levels. This is not to say it’s impossible for students to achieve high grades in IB exams, but it does mean there will be some personal sacrifices. At A-Level, students have more time for extracurricular activities or hobbies, whereas this might be more difficult for IB students to manage.

What is CIE?

CIE (also known as pre university) is a type of qualification offered to over 160 countries. It was founded by Cambridge University way back in 1858 and stands for “Cambridge Assessment International Education”. These are internationally recognised qualifications that can also replace GCSEs. This is definitely an alternative option for those who are studying abroad or require entry into UK colleges.

The CIE curriculum is different from traditional schools. There’s a lot more emphasis placed on life-long skills that will help students in all areas, not just academically. These transferable skills are really valuable for both employers and universities. In fact, the CIE exams are very prestigious qualifications that can boost your child’s chances of applying to Oxbridge. 

What is the difference between iGCSE and CIE?

iGCSE’s are the equivalent to GCSEs, but they are international qualifications taken in over 120 countries, with around 70 subjects. The CIE is also a board of examination, just like Edexcel, OCR or AQA. Hence why CIE qualifications are generally recognised as GCSEs, too. 

In essence there’s not much difference, but the exam content may differ according to the overarching qualification level. For instance, if you choose an iGCSE course but opt for the CIE board of examination, you’ll achieve an iGCSE instead. In both cases, the grading system ranges from A* to G.

Rounding it all up

Hopefully we haven’t given you too much of a headache, and things make a bit more sense now. All these different types of qualifications in the UK have their strengths, it just depends on personal preference as to which works best. 

If after reading this you still have some questions or want to enquire about our tuition services, get in touch with us today.

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Whether you’re looking for a tutor to help you achieve top grades at GCSE, A-Levels, IB or pre university, we’ve got you covered. Let’s give you a helping hand to the top of the mountain! Book a free, no obligation call to learn more.

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Naida Allen

Naida is a witty wordsmith with a love for writing and reading. She is a Content Writer and Social Media Executive at Tutor House — the top UK provider of online and in-person tuition. She specialises in topics relating to mental & physical wellbeing and career advice.

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