How do the IGCSEs compare to GCSEs and the Cambridge O-levels?

Luna Deller
Updated on
January 4, 2021

A secondary school curriculum could include preparation for the International General Certificate of Secondary Education (IGCSE), the General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE), the Cambridge O-level exams or other equivalent qualifications. Compare the different educational and future benefits each programme offers as you choose the best secondary school for your child. 

What is the IGCSE?

The IGCSE is one of the world’s most popular international qualifications for 14 to 16-year-olds with over 70 subjects available to students, including 30 languages. The IGCSE exams at the end of the 2-year course are taken by students in almost 5,000 schools in over 145 countries around the world. The exams evaluate the overall knowledge and subject mastery of students. 

Core IGCSE subjects include English, Mathematics, Science and a Modern Language. Other subjects may include Humanities, Social Sciences, Economics, Business Studies, Art, Design and Technology, Physical Education, Computer Science and many others. The types of IGCSE exams offered and the exam dates are set by the three individual IGCSE examination boards - Cambridge, Edexcel and AQA.

The majority of international schools in Singapore start the IGCSE course for students in Grade 9 and enable them to take the IGCSE exam at the end of Grade 10. 

What is the GCSE?

The GCSE is an academic qualification for students aged 14+ in England, Wales, and Northern Ireland. Students typically start to prepare for the GCSE from Year 10 and take the GCSE exams at the end of Year 11. The GCSE is considered equivalent to the IGCSE (the ‘I’ stands for the international aspect of the IGCSE) and verifies that students have mastered academic course work and are ready to graduate from Key Stage 4 of the English National Curriculum. 

The GCSE exam is taken in specific core subjects such as English, Literature, Mathematics and Science. Other subjects offered include Modern Languages, History, Geography, Business Studies, Art, Music, Design and Technology, Religious Studies and many more. The GCSE exams can be taken only in the UK and are set by five regional examination boards. Students usually progress to study A/AS levels after completing their GCSE.

What are the Cambridge O-levels?

The Cambridge O-levels are similar to the IGCSEs but are customised to meet specific local curricula needs, such as minority languages. It is offered in Singapore, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Sri Lanka and a few other countries. 

In Singapore, the GCE O-level was de-linked from the UK O-levels in 2006, and public schools offer customised Singapore O-levels to students in Grades 9 and 10. Students in the ‘Express stream’ directly qualify for the O-levels, while students in the ‘Normal stream’ first take the GCE-N exam and study an additional year in secondary school before taking the O-levels. Secondary schools in Singapore also offer O-level School-initiated electives to their students in their niche areas of expertise. 

How do IGCSE, GCSE and the O-Levels Compare? 

While all three programmes determine academic qualification and are considered to be equivalent qualifications, they have their own differences. 

1. Course content - The GCSE course content is designed primarily for British students, whereas the IGCSE caters for an international student body. Therefore the course content for the GCSE, especially for subjects like English Literature, History, Geography and so on, emphasise nationally relevant topics to students in the UK, whereas IGCSE courses have a more international basis. The IGCSE syllabuses contain certain unique features to offer meaningful choice to schools and students around the world. 

The Cambridge O-level syllabus was developed to meet specific local needs and offers fewer coursework options than the IGCSE and GCSE. According to CAIE (Cambridge Assessment International Education), there are also restricted practical test options in Cambridge O-level sciences. In Singapore, the GCE O-level exam is closely aligned with the Singapore school curriculum designed by the Singapore Ministry of Education (MoE).

2. International focus - 4,500 schools in countries around the world offer the IGCSE. The IGCSE syllabus has been developed to support modern curriculum development. The GCSE is offered only in England, Northern Ireland and Wales. Only a handful of countries still offer the Cambridge O-levels.

3. Length of the course and Difficulty - The IGCSE is a 2-year programme and is generally considered to be more demanding than the GCSE. Although, with the recent reform of the GCSE, the two are now more closely aligned and the GCSE consists of more challenging content and questions than before. Both the IGCSE and GCSE offer a variety of assessment techniques to test a student’s overall mastery and understanding of a subject, plus initiative, problem-solving, oral and practical skills. Preparation for the GCSEs usually takes 2 years, although some schools start preparing their students earlier according to a report on an NFER survey. 

In Singapore’s public secondary schools, students in the ‘Express stream’ qualify for the O-levels in 2 years while ‘Normal stream’ candidates take 3 years to complete their O-levels. The O-levels prioritise a student’s reading and writing skills, comprehension and logical thinking skills.  

Why does OWIS offer the Cambridge IGCSE Programme? 

All secondary school students at OWIS start preparing for the IGCSE from Grade 9 and take the IGCSE exams in Grade 10. We offer the Cambridge IGCSE because it's a rigorous and modern academic standard aimed at a wide ability range of students that prepares them well for post-16 study. The IGCSE also supports OWIS’ goals for our students. It gives students access to a relevant, valuable and well-rounded education and prepares children to become lifelong learners and successful contributors to the global economy.  

The IGCSE is ideal for our multicultural and multilingual student body, too. The curriculum promotes cultural awareness, a core value at our school. Additionally, multiple types of assessments are ideal for students whose first language is not English. The written assessment requires a good grasp of the English language, but the extensive coursework, oral and practical assessments provide choice and offer additional ways for non-native English speakers to successfully demonstrate learning and competency. There is also the option to take an exam in English as a Second Language.  

Children gain confidence for the future when they take the IGCSE. The world-renowned qualification prepares children for the A-Levels, International Baccalaureate Diploma Programme (IBDP) or any other equivalent pre-university educational programme. Successful completion of the IGCSE also allows students to confidently apply for admissions to colleges or universities across the globe and prepares them for their future careers and life. 

To learn more about the IGCSE programme at OWIS and its benefits for your child, contact us. Our secondary school curriculum prepares and equips your child for the future as a student, employee and global citizen. Book a tour and visit our school to know more.

Please note: All the images in this blog were taken in pre-Covid times.

About Author

Luna Deller

Senior Coordinator - Secondary, Head of Academic Operations, French Teacher

Luna is originally from Wales, UK. She holds a Master's Degree in Educational Leadership, a PGCE in Modern Languages and a Bachelor's Degree in French Studies and Italian Studies from University of Birmingham.

Luna has lived in various countries and has been teaching for many years. Prior to teaching, she was also a linguist in business. She has taught all age ranges in schools. Luna joined OWIS as the Senior Coordinator for the Early Childhood team and now leads the OWIS Secondary team and all whole school programmes.

Luna is driven by the desire to provide an inclusive and stimulating learning experience for all pupils. She values inquiry-led, creative, interactive and trans-disciplinary education; ensuring that curriculum is engaging and thought-provoking, and that students are supported and challenged in order to realise their potential. She believes that children learn best when provided with opportunities to discover the world around them and formulate their own lines of inquiry.

Luna is a massive cheese lover. She likes all cheeses, but most of all boursin, halloumi, cheddar, brie, feta and chevre. "Just cheese please", as she says. She also enjoys reading, running, dancing and painting.

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