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Everyone wants their children to have solid foundations as they head into their final years of schooling, whether 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 designed to prepare students for further study wherever they are situated in the world. Drawing on knowledge from some of TutorsPlus’ most experienced tutors in Maths, Geography, Science, and History, we are going to unpack exactly what the IGCSE is, how it compares to the MYP, and what advantages in can bring depending on your situation.

What is the IGCSE?

The International General Certificate of Secondary Education is based on the British curriculum (GCSE) but adapted for a more internationally-focused student-body.  It is mainly exam-based and is assessed through the exam board chosen by the school. The most well-known are Cambridge Assessment International Education and Edexcel. The Cambridge exam board offers over 70 subjects, including 30 languages as it aims to be as inclusive as possible to students from a wide variety of linguistic backgrounds, enabling 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, whereas in the IGCSE it could be of another country. The IGCSE also offers a wider range of subjects, particularly languages, as mentioned above, to be as flexible as possible to different 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 as it’s designed to accommodate the fact that in some countries or contexts there might be hurdles to performing lab experiments or taking fieldwork excursions.

Depending on the subject, sometimes more topics are covered in the IGCSE. In Maths for example, integration and sets – two quite in depth and conceptually demanding topics – are added. This leads many to believe that the IGCSE is more challenging than the GCSE, but this is not necessarily the case. Of the TutorsPlus teachers who know both programmes, almost all considered 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 is graded 1-9, the IGCSE uses G – A*. In terms of how they are valued by secondary schools and universities, there is no difference between the GCSE and the IGCSE.

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, or not at all, 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 and 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 designed to be a preparation for further international study, such as the IB Diploma Programme, as well as entry to international universities. In fact, teachers of some subjects observe that students who have done the IGCSE tend to have a very solid understanding of foundational concepts to build on in the IB DP. Andrea, Biology teacher and TutorsPlus Science tutor believes, “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”.

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 so for MYP students the IB Diploma may be their very first experience of an external exam, a situation in which some students thrive and for which others need to practice. Philip, TutorsPlus History tutor believes, “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”.

So, in terms of content knowledge, the IGCSE lays excellent foundations for the IB Diploma. IGCSE students will also have had experience of exam conditions. What IGCSE students may lack is an understanding of the inquiry-based learning approach and criteria-based assessment system of the IB Diploma, as well as certain skills such as independent research. In summary, the IGCSE is a perfectly adequate platform for the IB Diploma in terms 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 that when switching between programmes or schools, there is always the possibility of some gaps in skills or knowledge. If possible, try speaking with the coordinator of the programme your child will enter ahead of starting the new academic year to identify these. Sometimes tutoring over the break or in 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 questions are often differentiated in terms of levels of difficulty to meet the needs of both the most able student as well as those who find academics challenging. Because most assessment takes place at the end of the course, it allows students whose first language is not English more time to learn over the course of the programme before demonstrating their learning at the end. The IGCSE is certainly a good option if you know your child has strengths in assimilating knowledge and demonstrating this knowledge in exam conditions.

Another important detail in IGCSE’s favour is that many universities in the UK, in the absence of IB Diploma or A-Level results, will take into account the IGCSE results to offer university placement. So, if a student is thinking of pursuing tertiary studies in the UK, IGCSEs provide a University Admissions Department with a more rounded picture of the candidate. It is equally highly-regarded as an international qualification by European universities and North American colleges, who 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?

That the IGCSE has less or no coursework is not suited to all students. Students who find the time-bound recall required for exams particularly difficult may want to consider an option like the IB Middle Years Programme. The MYP has more diverse and coursework-style assessments regularly spaced throughout the course and allows for 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 for your child. It may also be a better option if your child intends to study the IB Diploma and you sense a need for them to practise the skills of self-led inquiry, reflection on learning, time-management and organisation skills, among others.

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.

TutorsPlus can provide specialist IGCSE tutors, experienced with the curriculum and exam preparation. Among them are tutors who are IGCSE Examiners. If you feel your child has any gaps ahead of moving into A-Levels or the IB Diploma from IGCSEs or MYP, we’d be happy to match them with an experienced tutor who will ensure they move forward with confidence and solid foundations. Additionally, if you have questions regarding school choice or the best curriculum to suit your child, TutorsPlus’ Education Consultant would be happy to guide you.