Exams & Curriculum IGCSE

What is the IGCSE and is it the right choice for my child?

Everyone wants their children to have solid foundations as they head into their final years of schooling. Whether that’s aiming to follow A-Levels, the IB Diploma, AP or your home or host country’s national curriculum. The International General Certificate of Secondary Education (IGCSE) is a content-rich programme that prepares students for further study wherever they are in the world. In this article, we are going to unpack precisely what the IGCSE is. We will also compare it to the MYP, and what advantages it can bring depending on your situation.

What is the IGCSE?

The IGCSE is based on the British curriculum (GCSE) but adapted for a more internationally-focused student body.  Assessments are done mainly by examination through the exam board of the school’s choice. The most well-known are Cambridge Assessment International Education and Edexcel. The Cambridge exam board offers over 70 subjects, including 30 languages. The aim is to be as inclusive as possible to students from a wide variety of linguistic backgrounds. This allows them to continue studying their mother tongue. The IGCSE allows for differing levels of ability by offering both Core and Extended curriculum papers in some subjects.

How is it different from the GCSE?

UK families might be curious how different the IGCSE is from the GCSE. The main difference between the two is that the IGCSE sets the curriculum in a more international context. So, for example, in Geography GCSE students will practise map skills based on UK maps. In the IGCSE they might use maps of another country. The IGCSE also offers a wider range of subjects, particularly languages. As mentioned above, this is to be as flexible as possible to different international contexts.

Another difference is that the GCSE has a compulsory practical coursework component, which also features in the final exam. This coursework component is optional in the IGCSE. This accommodates that in some countries or contexts there might be hurdles to performing lab experiments or taking fieldwork excursions.

Does it depend on the subject?

Depending on the subject, sometimes the IGCSE covers more topics and goes into further depth. In Maths, for example, they include integration and sets – two quite in-depth and conceptually demanding topics. Many believe that the IGCSE is more challenging than the GCSE, but this is not necessarily the case. Most teachers who know both programmes, consider the difference to be only marginal and not something worthy of concern.

UK families abroad opting for the IGCSE, may also notice that the grading looks a little different. While the GCSE uses grades 1-9, the IGCSE uses G – A*. There is no difference between the GCSE and the IGCSE in academic standing or ranking.

What are the different exam boards, and do they matter?

There are two main boards that offer the IGCSE: Cambridge Assessment International Education and Edexcel. It is upon individual schools to choose which exam board they wish to offer the IGCSE through. While the content of the IGCSE changes very little between the exam boards, the format of the exam might. For example, in Geography, Cambridge has four separate papers, whereas Edexcel has one 3-hour exam. However, universities do not place any weight on which exam board was used. Achieving a high grade in either exam will be well-regarded by universities.

Does the IGCSE lay good foundations for the IB Diploma Programme (DP)?

Yes, the IGCSE is excellent preparation for further international study. Both for the IB Diploma Programme, as well as entry to international universities. In fact, some teachers observe that students who have done the IGCSE tend to have solid understanding of foundational concepts to build on in the IBDP.

“With respect to the Sciences, the breadth and depth of knowledge combined with the skills required by the IGCSE is second to none. There is lots of application and practical-based content”.

Andrea, Biology Teacher and TutorsPlus Science Tutor

It is also considered an advantage of the IGCSE that assessment is held under exam conditions. By contrast, the IB Middle Years Programme (MYP) does not include exams. Therefore, for MYP students the IB Diploma may be their very first experience of an external exam. Some students thrive in this situation others need to practice.

An IGCSE course not only keeps students of the 14-16 years age range sharply focused upon their studies but also provides them with the crucial experience of sitting public examinations in mainly timed-test conditions. This is invaluable early preparation for the exams students will sit at age 18”.

Philip, TutorsPlus History tutor

What about IGCSE Content Knowledge?

So, in terms of content knowledge, the IGCSE lays excellent foundations for the IB Diploma. IGCSE students will also have had the experience with exam conditions. IGCSE students may lack an understanding of the inquiry-based learning approach and criteria-based assessment system of the IB Diploma. They may also lack certain skills such as independent research. However, the IGCSE is a perfectly adequate platform for the IB Diploma in terms of its content. All schools will differ in terms of how they manage the balance of knowledge and the 21st-century skills considered so important in the world today, and which can make a transition from IGCSE into the IB Diploma smoother.

It’s important to remember when switching between programmes or schools, there is the possibility of some skill or knowledge gaps. Try speaking with the programme coordinator ahead of starting the new academic year to identify these. Sometimes extra help during the first few months can fill those gaps and prevent issues further down the line.

Why might the IGCSE be a good choice for my child?

The IGCSE is accessible to those of almost all levels of ability. The exam boards often separate questions by difficulty level to meet the needs of students of all academic abilities. It gives students for whom English is a second language more time to learn before the exam. This is because most assessment takes place at the end of the course. The IGCSE is a good option if your child has strengths in assimilating knowledge and demonstrating this knowledge in exams.

Another important detail in IGCSE’s favour is their status with universities in the UK. In the absence of IB Diploma or A-Level results, universities may take into account the IGCSE results to offer placement. If a student wants to study in the UK, IGCSEs help to provide universities with a more rounded picture. It has high value as an international qualification by European universities and North American colleges. These institutions will take it into account alongside the relevant A-Levels or IB Diploma grades.

Why might another curriculum be a better choice for my child?

The IGCSE does not suit all students because there is no coursework. Students who find the time-bound recall required for exams particularly difficult may want to consider the IB Middle Years Programme. The MYP has more diverse coursework-style assessments. The assessments in the MYP are regularly spaced throughout the course. This allows students to independently pursue their own interests through the Personal Project. The MYP may be a better choice if you are aiming for a very well-rounded, deeply internationally-focused education. It may also be a better option if your child intends to study for the IB Diploma. Also, if they need to practise the skills of self-led inquiry, reflection on learning, time-management and organisation skills.

The bottom line: Know your child.

In summary, when considering any course of study, the most important things to consider are:

  1. Where do your child’s strengths and weaknesses lie? Are they fountains of knowledge in a particular subject and would excel in a content-based exam? Or are they good at pacing themselves through a variety of different subjects and types of tasks?
  2. Do they have a clear idea of what and where they’d like to study? If so, carefully selected IGCSEs could already be an asset to their application portfolio, especially in the UK.
  3. How well does your child excel in the subject? If a subject – like Maths – is compulsory for your child’s school leaving certificate, but not a subject they intend to continue studying, it’s not necessary to study whatever is considered the most demanding course. Universities don’t necessarily note the different demands of different courses. But they will note a higher grade.

About the Author: Sandra Steiger has over 10 years of experience teaching English at various schools in Switzerland. She now works as Academic Support Manager at TutorsPlus. During her 6 years at the International School of Geneva, she was Service Learning programme Coordinator and International Award Supervisor. She was also a Homeroom Mentor and Head of Year 8.

Read more articles here.

Share now

Find the perfect fit

Read our latest magazine for free!

Our International School Parent magazine is free to read online or download on your computer, tablet or smartphone. Check out the latest editions

Our Trusted Partners

Swiss International School
Swiss Group of International Schools
Health first logo
Geneva International Schools
Tutor Switzerland