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UK study  Choosing a course  GCSEs and equivalents

GCSEs and equivalents  

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School students in the UK usually obtain GCSEs (or equivalent qualifications) as their first qualifications at the age of about 16.

They usually take anywhere between five and 12 subjects, chosen from a wide range on offer. There is no age limit, and many mature students and international students take them.

For some further courses, passes in mathematics or English at this level are essential.

What’s available?
GCSE (General Certificate of Secondary Education)

The first qualification in the British education system, usually completed by students aged 16.

It replaced the former GCE O (Ordinary) level and CSE examinations. O-levels are still recognised by UK universities and colleges, and are taken by many students overseas.

Students usually study up to 12 subjects (eight on average). A wide range of more than 45 subjects can be studied. Some are compulsory in state schools as part of the National Curriculum: English, mathematics, science and physical education, plus information and communication technology (ICT) and citizenship for students in England, or Welsh for students in Wales.

Other subjects will also be offered; for instance, a modern foreign (non-English) or ancient language, other sciences, history, geography, engineering, design and technology, and various social-science and arts-based subjects, to name a few.

Note that the different institutions will offer different menus of GCSE subjects – it is not uniform, so check what is being offered. Students do have some control over whether they continue studying subjects at several stages in their education.

The GCSE is graded on a scale of A* (highest) to G (lowest). To progress to the next level, usually academic A-levels or A-levels in applied subjects, students normally need at least four passes at grade C or above. Subjects are graded individually. Universities and employers usually regard A–C as pass grades.

IGCSE (International General Certificate of Secondary Education)

The international equivalent of the GCSE, administered by University of Cambridge International Examinations. The IGCSE has the same grading system as the GCSE. The exam board Edexcel also offers its own version of the IGCSE.

Applied GCSE

You can now also study for an applied GCSE that concentrates on work-related aspects of subjects.

Applied GCSEs are offered in:

  • applied art and design
  • applied business
  • applied ICT
  • applied science
  • engineering
  • health and social care
  • leisure and tourism
  • manufacturing.

One applied GCSE is equivalent to two conventional GCSEs, depending on options chosen. As with other GCSEs, grades range from A* (the highest) to G. Two grades (ie AA) are possible for double awards.

Scottish Standard Grade

The Standard Grade is the Scottish equivalent of the GCSE. They are awarded at grades 1–7, with 1 being the highest and 7 the lowest, in three levels:

  • Credit (grades 1–2)
  • General (grades 3–4)
  • Foundation (grades 5–6).

After completing Standard Grades, many students then move directly on to Highers or take Intermediates. At least seven Standards at grades 1–3 are needed to continue with an academic education.

Note that, in the next few years, the Scottish Government plans to launch a new General Grade qualification that will replace Standard Grades at General and Credit levels as well as the Intermediate 1 and 2 qualification.

14–19 Diploma

This is a new, more vocational/practical qualification for secondary school students, which is distinct from both GCSEs and A-levels. However, It can be combined with GCSEs and A-levels or be an alternative to them; it is flexible.

It is being rolled out in a series of stages, starting in 2009 and finishing in 2013. Awarded after two years’ study, the Diploma allows students to find out more about an area of work of interest to them (out of a possible 17 subjects that will be offered), while at the same time giving them the skills and knowledge that will help them in the job market or at university after completion. The teaching is a mix of classroom learning and hands-on practical experience in a workplace. It is available in three levels:

  • Foundation (NQF Level 1), equivalent to five GCSEs at grades D–G
  • Higher (NQF Level 2), equivalent to seven GCSEs at grades A*–C
  • Advanced (NQF Level 3), equivalent (for those over 16) to three-and-a-half A-levels.

It can then lead to further academic study or a career.


BTECs (Business and Technician Education Council) and NVQs (National Vocational Qualifications) are taken as an alternative to GCSEs and A-levels. Students can study subjects in many occupational areas, including design, health care, construction, engineering, horticulture, travel and tourism, IT, science and administration.

OCR Nationals are similar qualifications to BTECs. 

Scottish Group Award

In Scotland, there is an equivalent programme of Scottish Group Awards.

Find out more about costs and the application process for GCSEs and equivalent qualifications.


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