School qualifications explained

The UK education system is divided into nursery, primary, secondary and university education. The National Curriculum regulates the content taught and assessments carried out across State schools. In this section, we list the most popular school qualifications available in the UK.

General Certificate Secondary Education (GSCE)

GCSEs are the most common qualification for 14-16 year olds in the UK and are taken in a variety of subjects over two years. There is a wide range of academic and work-related subjects available and study is predominantly theory based.

GCSEs in maths, science, English grammar and English literature are compulsory as part of the UK national curriculum. The number of subjects taken varies, but it is usually between 8 and 10. GCSEs are assessed mainly on written exams, but also contain an element of coursework that is completed during the year. Most schools also require you to study other subjects, though not necessarily as GCSEs. These are usually career education, citizenship, physical education information and communication technology (ICT), religious studies, sex education and work-related learning.

For different reasons, these two years cannot be interrupted, so a child must start year 10 (usually aged 14) in a particular school and continue at that school until the GCSE exams are over. However, it is possible to join at age 15 by being placed ‘out of year’ with the 14 year old candidates.

The IGCSE, developed by University of Cambridge International Examinations in 1988, is internationally recognised. Typical subjects include a first and second language, mathematics and the sciences, as well as a choice of a number of additional courses ranging from social sciences to creative arts.A


AS (Advanced Subsidiary) and A (Advanced) level qualifications are one of the main routes in the UK into university. A levels are made up of the AS level and the A2. Each part makes up 50 per cent of the overall A level grade. There are about 80 AS and A level subjects available, from a wide range of vocational or academic areas, such as economics, maths, philosophy, art, history, music, physics and introduction to business and tourism. Most students will take four AS levels, but only three A2s.

AS level can be studied either as a free standing qualification, or it can be the first half of the full A level. Students may also choose to take the extended project. This is equivalent in size to half an A level and requires students to produce a single piece of written work, showing evidence of planning, preparation, research and working independently.

In most cases, to do an A-level, students will need at least five GCSEs at grades A*-C. However, each school has its own requirements before they allow a student to do an A-level.

Each university will have their own minimum requirements for admissions.

Cambridge Pre-U

Also known just as Pre-U, this is a new alternative to A-Levels. It is a diploma-type qualification, and has recognition for university entrance. UK universities accept Cambridge Pre-U and recognition is growing internationally, including in the US, Canada, Australia, Hong Kong, Germany and The Netherlands.

UK Diploma

These qualifications are offered in some state schools for 14-19 year olds. It can lead to college and university, or to skilled employment. Students can combine it with GCSEs and A levels. Young people studying for diplomas will do so along with any compulsory subjects – for example, English, maths, science and physical education in years 10 and 11.

International Baccalaureate (IB)

The International Baccalaureate Organisation was founded in Geneva in 1968. At first, it offered a single programme for internationally mobile students preparing for university. Today it has grown offering four highly respected programmes of international education that develop the intellectual, personal, emotional and social skills needed to live, learn and work in a rapidly globalizing world. Schools must be authorized, by the IB organisation, to offer any of the programmes for students aged 3 to 19 with the diploma being globally recognised as a university entrance qualification in over 110 countries.

International Baccalaureate – Middle Years Programme (IB MYP)

The MYP is a challenging framework that encourages students to make practical connections between their studies and the real world.  The programme empowers students to inquire into a wide range of issues and ideas of significance locally, nationally and globally. The result is young people who are creative, critical and reflective thinkers.

At the end of their IB MYP studies, students can receive a certificate awarded by the International Baccalaureate Organisation. The student’s individual learning journey is also recorded in a `transcript’ which provides a valuable record of their achievement.

International Baccalaureate – Diploma (IB)

The IB Diploma Programme is a post-16 qualification that students can opt to take instead of A-levels at British schools, an option that is becoming more and more popular.

The programme aims to develop students who have excellent breadth and depth of knowledge – students who flourish physically, intellectually, emotionally and ethically. Students are required to study six subjects, three at standard level and three at higher level; literature, an additional language, maths and science are all compulsory with the additional subjects chosen from ‘individuals and societies’ (economics, geography, history etc) group and ‘the arts’. In addition, students must complete an extended essay of 4000 words on an original research topic, undertake a ‘Theory of Knowledge’ course which encourages critical thinking, and participate in Creativity, Action and Service (CAS), activities.

The guiding principal of the IB Diploma is individual, independent learning, which means that students that have not previously studied the programme, whether they have moved from the UK system or any other international qualification, can be given the appropriate level of support help them acclimatise to their new programme of study.

International Baccalaureate – Career-related Programme (CP)

The International Baccalaureate® (IB) Career-related Programme (CP) is designed for students aged 16-19 and represents an alternative to the Diploma Programme (DP).