A Guide to U.K. School Qualifications Offered Internationally

Two of the U.K.’s examination boards provide suites of qualifications that have been developed specifically for the overseas market. These qualifications are based on the domestic versions of the GCSE and A level examinations, and are offered by Cambridge International Examinations (CIE) and Edexcel. Whereas CIE is a division of Cambridge Assessment, a department of the University of Cambridge and a not-for-profit organization, Edexcel has been owned and operated by Pearson Education Limited since 2005, an arm of the global education and publishing company Pearson.

Both boards offer international school curricula and assessment from primary level through to advanced, upper secondary level. The curriculum and examinations are based broadly on the curriculum and structure of domestic equivalents, most notably GCSE and GCE A Level. However, the international equivalents of the GCSE and A level are not tied to the U.K.’s national curriculum, which means there are differences in both structure and content. Until recently, this has meant that international versions of the qualifications were not approved for teaching in the UK’s state-maintained schools. This situation changed at the GCSE level in 2010 when International GCSEs were approved for teaching in state schools. Since then the IGCSEs have become increasingly popular in the U.K. market, as they are considered by many to offer better preparation for A level study.

Cambridge International Examinations operates in 160 countries globally across a network of more than 10,000 schools, and in collaboration with governments in more than 30 countries. In some countries, such as Singapore, Cambridge provides the national secondary school examinations in concert with government boards, while in others the work is more consultative in nature and geared towards introducing new assessment systems.Edexcel reports a presence in 92 countries at over 5,400 international centers, and like CIE also works with schools, colleges, governments and training providers.

International General Certificate of Secondary Education

The two boards both offer their versions of the International General Certificate of Secondary Education, more commonly known as the IGCSE, which was originally developed by CIE in 1985 and first administered in 1988. The Edexcel International GCSE is a more recent development, but has a similar focus on meeting the requirements of different national settings.

Cambridge

Cambridge offers international pre-tertiary programs from ‘Primary’ (over 650 schools worldwide) to International AS & A Levels (over 125 countries and 350,000 entries per year), although its most popular qualification is the IGCSE for 14 to 16 year olds, which is administered in more than 70 subjects, in more than 140 countries, at over 4,000 schools with more than 650,000 entries. Cambridge describes the IGCSE as “the world’s most popular international qualification for 14 to 16 year olds.”

The examination board also offers O Level curriculum and examinations in 40 subjects at a level equivalent to the IGCSE. Like the IGCSE, the O Level is designed for an international audience, but with curriculum that allows for teaching to be placed in a more localized context (as in Singapore), and also taking into consideration learners whose first language might not be English.

Edexcel

Similarly, Edexcel offers pre-tertiary curricula from Primary through to its newly introduced International Advanced Levels. Again, the most popular qualifications are Edexcel’s International GCSE, which is currently offered in 40 subjects in over 900 schools and 80 countries.

Structure

Like the GCSE equivalent, the IGCSE 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.

Schools using the examination worldwide have different expectations about the number of IGCSEs students should take, but typical “core” subjects include a first language, second language, mathematics and one or more subjects in the sciences. As in the UK, students will then choose a number of additional programs with a typical full load comprising 8-10 total subjects.

In response to systems of education more accustomed to awards that evaluate students across a group of subjects, Cambridge offers the International Certificate of Education, or Cambridge ICE, which – according to CIE – is popular in the United States and South America.

The ICE award aims at offering a broad-based curriculum and is issued to students who pass examinations with A*-C in at least seven Cambridge IGCSE subjects from five different subject groups (humanities and social sciences, science, mathematics, and creative, technical and vocational), including two different languages. The newly introduced English Baccalaureate, by contrast, is awarded to students achieving grades C or better in five subjects, including English and mathematics. The ICE award  is awarded in three grades: Distinction, Merit and Pass.

The top 10 countries in terms of CIE IGCSE test-takers, according to recent Cambridge data are: Egypt, UK, Zimbabwe, UAE, India, Argentina, Saudi Arabia, Maldives, China and Swaziland. For the O Level, the top 10 countries are as follows: Singapore, Mauritius, Pakistan, Brunei Darussalam, Maldives, Botswana, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nigeria and Zimbabwe.

Grading and Assessment

IGCSEs are available as both level 1 and level 2 equivalent awards on the National Qualifications Framework, and are widely recognized as suitable preparation for level 3 – or upper secondary – study, whether vocational or academic.

The program of study for IGCSEs is linear, as opposed to the modular approach of domestic GCSEs; meaning that students take all examinations at the end of the program, and are therefore challenged to synthesize information taught throughout the course versus individually by unit. Assessment for the Cambridge IGCSE can include written, oral, coursework and practical assessment. Edecxcel IGCSEs are by examination only.

IGCSE examination sessions occur twice a year, in June and November (January for Edexcel). Results are issued in August and January.

Students taking exams as level 1 qualifications are graded on a scale of D-G, while those taking them as level 2 qualifications are graded A*-C. As with domestic GCSEs, progression to upper secondary study is based most commonly on a minimum of 5 core subject passes at C or above; however, this will vary from school to school and from country to country.

Grading Scale

The IGCSE and O level have been assessed by the relevant authorities as equivalent to the GCSE. The same grading scale is used for both the IGCSE and the GCSE, whereas the O level scale runs from A*-E. WES suggests the following grading equivalencies:

 Grading Scale

Domestic Award of the International GCSE

Until recently, IGCSEs were not approved for use in state-funded schools as they did not follow and tie into government-mandated curricula and structure as set out by the national curriculum. This kept the IGCSE off the Section 96 database of approved qualifications eligible for funding in state schools.

This withholding of approval was not a reflection of quality. By 2010, when Section 96 regulations were changed, 16 of the CIE’s IGCSEs had already been accredited by Ofqual, the U.K.examinations watchdog.

The extent to which IGCSEs differ from the national curriculum requirements imposed on GCSE syllabuses was apparent in a study produced for the government by the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority in November 2006. It found that IGCSEs in English, mathematics, science and French “did not meet the GCSE subject criteria in significant ways,” while making no judgment on relative quality.

In 2010, the newly elected coalition government downgraded the link between the national curriculum and a qualification’s eligibility for Section 96 funding, in effect allowing state schools to teach Ofqual-accredited IGCSEs. This is something independent schools have long been able to do (without the need for Ofqual accreditation). Now state schools are free to choose between GCSEs, IGCSEs and any other Ofqual accredited qualifications.

In response, an increasing number of U.K.schools are embracing the IGCSE, considered by many as better preparation for A level study. Figures show that the number of IGCSE mathematics entries increased from 34,000 in 2012 to 45,000 in 2013, while the number of English language entries grew more than four-fold – from 18,000 to 78,000 – over the same period.

To draw a distinction between IGCSEs offered domestically and GCSEs, it was decided that for accreditation purposes IGCSEs should be given a more distinctive name. Therefore for teaching in state schools IGCSEs are known and regulated officially as Level 1/Level 2 Certificates, and all domestically awarded certificates are titled as such.

Currently, 21 Cambridge International Level1/Level 2 syllabuses are listed on Ofqual’s Register of Regulated Qualifications, while a reported 1,330 U.K.schools now teach Cambridge IGCSEs (900 of them state-funded).

A total of 13 Edexcel International Level1/Level2 Certificates are currently approved by Ofqual to be taught and examined in U.K.state schools.

A third examining board, AQA, received accreditation for its IGCSE Certificates (for the domestic audience) in English and Further Mathematics in 2013, and as such can offer them in state schools from this year (2014) forward. However, AQA is not offering the IGCSE internationally.

International A Levels

As with the IGCSE, there are currently two examination boards providing the international version of the GCE A Level. These are Cambridge International Examinations and Edexcel.

Cambridge reports that its International AS and A Levels are taken by over 175,000 learners in more than 130 countries annually. Cambridge currently offers syllabus and examinations in 55 subjects and has been offering A levels internationally for over 50 years and the International AS Level since 2001.

Edexcel, which has only recently begun offering International A Levels, currently offers syllabus and examinations in eight subjects.

Cambridge Advanced Qualifications and Structure

A Level

The Cambridge Advanced Level is designed for learners aged 16 to 19 who are looking to prepare for higher education. Like the domestic version of the A level, the program is two years in length for the full International A Level and one year for the International AS. Syllabuses are created specifically for an international audience and are not regulated by Ofqual.

The A level can be taken as one continuous program with all examinations occurring in a linear fashion at the end of the two years or in a staged manner in certain subjects with students taking the Cambridge International AS Level in one examination series at the end of the first year and then carrying those results forward to the next year to complete the final International A Level (this option is not available in languages). The AS level can be also taken as a qualification in its own right to complement other subjects being studied and to increase breadth of curriculum.

Examinations are held twice a year, in June and November, and results are issued in August and January. Retakes of specific modules are not permitted, rather candidates have to retake the whole AS or A level, if they are not satisfied with their final grade.

Like their U.K.counterpart, Cambridge International A/AS Levels are graded on a scale from A* to E, with no A* at the AS level. Learners receive a grade for each subject taken.

All U.K.universities recognize the Cambridge International A Level as equivalent to the GCE A Level for the purpose of admission, and currently 450 US universities recognize the credential for admissions. Recognition information for the Cambridge International A Level is available here.

The top 10 countries in terms of entrant numbers for the Cambridge International AS & A Levels are as follows: Pakistan, Mauritius, Malaysia, Brunei Darussalam, USA, China, Zimbabwe, New Zealand, Nepal and India.

AICE Diploma

Cambridge also offers a group award called the Cambridge AICE Diploma, which requires that learners study subjects from three curriculum areas: mathematics and science, languages, and arts and humanities. The Diploma is designed to offer students a more broad-based learning experience than they might get from taking individual A level subjects. It has been examined since 1996 and examinations occur twice a year, in June and November, with results issued in August and January.

Within the Cambridge AICE Diploma award framework, the Cambridge International A Level counts as a double credit and Cambridge International AS Level counts as a single credit. To be considered for a Cambridge AICE Diploma, a student must earn the equivalent of six credits by passing a combination of examinations at either double credit or single credit, with at least one course coming from each curriculum area.

Grading is based on a scale of A* – E, with each grade converted to a points system from 140 to 20. Grade A* (not issued for AS Levels) is awarded 140 points and grade E 40 points for the A level, with AS level grades are assessed at half the value (60 – 20). Total diploma points are capped at 360.

Students who meet the requirements of the group award will receive a Cambridge AICE Diploma at one of three levels: Pass, Merit or Distinction. The level awarded is based on the overall Cambridge AICE Diploma score:

  • Cambridge AICE Diploma with Distinction (320 points or above)
  • Cambridge AICE Diploma with Merit (220 to 319 points)
  • Cambridge AICE Diploma at Pass level (120 to 219 points)

Students who do not meet the requirements of the group award will receive certificates for their individual subjects.

Pre-U Diploma

Introduced in 2008 (first examinations in 2010), the most recent addition to the CIE’s suite of advanced international school qualifications is the Pre-U Diploma, designed specifically to prepare students for university study, and popular in the U.K.as an alternative to the A level.

The two-year program of study for the Diploma involves 380 class contact hours with a linear, end-of-program examination model that places a focus on synthesizing links in subject matter across all papers.

The qualification exists in a defined relationship to the A level, in that students take a minimum of three Principal Subjects (26 currently available), each of which are considered broadly equivalent to individual A level subjects and regulated by Ofqual. Students may substitute, or transfer, up to two A levels as part of their Pre-U program. Short Courses (typically one year of study) are also available in some subjects (languages, mathematics and further mathematics) and should be considered equivalent to the AS level.

In addition to Principal Subjects, students must pass a Global Perspectives (GPR) component in the first year of study and prepare a written Independent Research Report in the second year. The GPR component includes an examination, an essay and a presentation. The two additional elements are designed to develop research and thinking skills in preparation for university study.

Ofqual has accredited the Pre-U Diploma as a credential at Level 3 on the National Qualifications Framework, essentially giving it an A level equivalency.

For the purposes of university admissions, UCAS has conducted a comparability study and assigned tariff points to Pre-U awards. As a point of reference, the second highest award for Pre-U Principal Subjects (D2) is weighted slightly higher (145 vs. 140) in the UCAS Tariff point scheme than the top A level award (A*).

Certain universities in the U.K.will accept Pre-U credentials for admission and have expressed their entrance requirements accordingly.

Students are assessed on a nine-point scale:

  • Distinction 1, 2, 3 (D1, D2, D3)
  • Merit 1, 2, 3 (M1, M2, M3)
  • Pass 1, 2, 3 (P1, P2, P3)

Based on a preliminary evaluation of the Pre-U Diploma, WES recommends undergraduate semester credit on a subject-by-subject basis, with 8 credits per Principal Subject and no credit for the Global Perspectives element or the Individual Research Report. WES recommends the following grading equivalency:

  • D1 – M2 = A
  • M3 – P2 = B
  • P3            = C

Cambridge has prepared a guide for Higher Education Admissions Staff in North America, offering useful equivalency and curriculum details.

Edexcel International A Levels

A new suite of qualifications, known as Edexcel International Advanced Levels, was introduced for first teaching in September 2013 in response to changes being made to the modular structure of domestic A levels and the withdrawal of the January examination window.

The new Edexcel International A Levels remain modular and allow for January and June examinations, but are available internationally only. The first examinations were offered in January 2014.

Previously, Edexcel offered the U.K.version of the A level internationally, as regulated by Ofqual, with international students taking the same papers as U.K.students concurrently. The new Edexcel International Advanced Level is regulated by Edexcel and not Ofqual.

As the new international degree has only recently been introduced, it is currently recognized by fewer universities than is the case for Cambridge International A Levels, although the list is reportedly growing ‘daily.’ The full list of universities accepting the award is available here. U.K.NARIC has benchmarked the Edexcel International Advanced Level as comparable to the overall GCE A Level standard.

Edexcel still offers its Ofqual-regulated A levels internationally, but these examinations are all subject to changes currently being made to the domestic award, including the removal of January examinations and the end-of-first year AS level examinations.

Under the new international version of the Edexcel A Level, currently available in eight subjects, the AS can be used as a stage on the way to completing the International A Level or as a standalone qualification. However, from 2015 onwards, all domestic A levels offered internationally will be examined at the end of the two-year course only, with the AS becoming a standalone qualification only.

The Edexcel International A Level is assessed 100 percent by examination and offered in the following subjects: Mathematics, Economics, Business Studies, Accounting, Law, Biology, Chemistry, and Physics.

Edexcel reports that there is no change to the content or assessment versus domestic A levels in the sciences, accounting and law. Modifications have been made in mathematics, economics and business studies.

U.S. Equivalency

WES recommends the same U.S. equivalency for the International A Level as it does for the domestic award.

Completion of a full GCE A Level is considered comparable to completion of two consecutive, first-year undergraduate courses in a given subject (e.g. Math 101 + Math 102). Thus, we recommend eight U.S. semester credits per subject.

As GCE AS Levels are taken after the first year of sixth form, and comprise half an A level, we recommend four U.S. semester credits per applicable subject.

For the completion of two to three GCE A or equivalent combination of GCE AS, WES recommends one semester of undergraduate study, with a maximum of 24 credits. For four GCE A (or 3 GCE A + 1 GCE AS), we recommend one year of undergraduate study.

Sample Documents 

The attached PDF file offers a set of annotated sample documents for: The Cambridge International General Certificate of Secondary Education (pages 1 – 5); the Cambridge International General Certificate of Education O Level  (pages 5 -7); the OCR General Certificate of Education AS Level (page 8); the OCR GCE A Level (pages 9-10); and the WJEC GCE Advanced Level (pages 11-12).

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