Guide to qualifications in England

Over the past few years, government initiatives have led to changes in England’s education landscape, not least in the area of exams. To help HR and relocating parents, we take a look at the qualifications and examinations now available in English schools, including the new-style A Level and GCSE, both introduced in September 2015.

If parents decide to move their child before he or she has started secondary education, a major factor in their choice of school will be what they want the child to learn, how the child will be examined and what qualifications will be awarded at the end of school.When you think of the English education system, GCSEs and A Levels are likely to be the first set of qualifications that spring to mind. However, there are many recognised qualifications, and – surprise, surprise – different schools support different systems. The government is backing numerous systems within state schools, widening choice but also adding to the confusion.

From GCSE to International Baccalaureate

Although there are numerous options, a student in an English school will typically study for GCSEs between the ages of 14 and 16, and then A Levels between the ages of 16 and 19. There are further post-16 options in some schools – for example, the BTEC Diploma, vocational qualifications such as the NVQ and the International Baccalaureate Diploma, which is now quite widely available in state and independent schools.The Pre-U was introduced into independent schools and sixth forms in 2008, and the International GCSE (IGCSE) was recently accredited for study. All the above are considered in detail in this article.

British education system

The education systems in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland have continued to diversify in recent years. Scotland has its own qualifications framework, and while the systems in England, Wales and Northern Ireland share some similarities, on closer inspection they all have their own distinctions.

Take a look at the following pages to find out more about each country’s education system:

English qualification levels explained

It is helpful to understand the levels that qualifications in England fall under. There are nine levels, from entry level to level 8. Each level includes several different types of qualification. Some are subject-based, some are work-related and some are job-related. The level tells you how challenging a qualification is; the higher you go, the harder the qualification.

Levels 1 and 2:


‘GCSE’ stands for General Certificate of Secondary Education. It is the main school-leaving qualification in England taken by 14–16 year olds. GCSEs are available in more than 50 subjects. The qualification mainly involves studying the theory of a subject, combined with some investigative work. Some subjects also involve practical work.GCSEs are usually studied full time at school or college, taking five terms to complete. They are assessed mainly on written exams, although there are elements of coursework in some subjects. Some subjects, such as art and design, have more coursework and fewer exams.Changes were introduced in September 2015, with new-style GCSEs being delivered in English language, English literature and maths. Further subjects will be introduced in the next two years. Assessment will be mainly by final exam, with other types of assessment used only where they are needed to test essential skills.GCSEs are currently graded A* to G and U (unclassified), but a new grading scale of 9 (the top grade) to 1 will be used for the new-style GCSEs. Results are published in August.


The International GCSE is an internationally recognised qualification at the same level as the GCSE. It is intended to take a broader approach to learning.According to the University of Cambridge International Examinations (CIE) examining board, which is the main awarding body of the IGCSE to UK schools, the qualification “encourages learner-centred and enquiry-based approaches to learning, and develops learners’ skills in creative thinking, enquiry and problem-solving, giving learners excellent preparation for the next stage in their education”.Schools can offer any combination of subjects, each of which is certificated separately. More than 70 subjects are available, including more than 30 language courses, offering a variety of routes for learners of different abilities.

International Baccalaureate Middle Years Programme

The International Baccalaureate Middle Years Programme is an international curriculum for students aged between 11–16 years and is part of the four programmes of learning from the International Baccalaureate taught in international schools across the world.

Level 3:

AS & A Level

AS (Advanced Subsidiary) Level and A (Advanced) Level are the main qualifications taken in England by 16–19 year olds, and the most widely accepted qualification for entry into higher education. Both qualifications focus on traditional study skills. They usually involve two years of full-time study, but are also available part time.There are approximately 80 AS and A Level subjects. Students can choose from a wide range of academic subjects, as well as some ‘applied’ (work-related) subjects.New AS and A Levels were introduced in September 2015. They are assessed by way of an exam at the end. AS Level assessments typically take place after a year’s study, and A Levels after two years. Courses are no longer divided into modules, and there are no exams in January.AS and A Levels have been decoupled recently in England so that AS Level results no longer count towards an A Level.Universities played a greater role in the recent review and update of the content of A Levels than they had previously.AS and A Levels are graded A*–E. The results are announced in August.


The Pre-U is a relatively new qualification, having been introduced in September 2008. As with the IGCSE, the University of Cambridge International Examinations is the main awarding body. The big difference between the Pre-U and the A Level is that the former’s main aim is to prepare students for university.The Pre-U is available in 25 subjects, and pupils are only examined at the end of the two-year course. This is intended to give teachers the flexibility to prepare them over the two years without the pressure of continuous assessment.Another unique aspect of the Pre-U is that it offers a course on ‘global perspectives’, covering globalisation, climate change and geopolitics. Students can follow this with an independent research report, a 5,000-word project that enables them to study a subject area in greater depth.

IB Diploma

Based on detailed academic study of a wide range of subjects, the IB Diploma Programme is a qualification for 16–19 year olds. It is made up of a compulsory ‘core’, plus six separate subjects.Students have some choice of subjects, studying three at Higher level and three at Standard level.

BTEC Diploma

Launched in September 2008, the BTEC Diploma is a composite qualification for 14–19 year olds, made up of principal learning, generic learning, and additional and specialist learning.It can be taken at three levels: Foundation, which is a Level 1 qualification; Higher, which is Level 2; and Advanced and Progression, which are both Level 3.The diploma has been designed with input from employers and is available in industry-sector-related ‘lines of learning’.Diplomas covering 17 lines of learning are currently available in schools and colleges. Each of the three types of learning represents a standalone qualification. These, together with other learning such as a mandatory period of work experience, combine to create the full diploma.


An apprenticeship is an earn-as-you-learn option for post-16 study that is becoming increasingly popular and respected in England as an alternative route to employment for young people.


‘NVQ’ stands for National Vocational Qualification. It is a competence-based qualification, which means that students learn practical, work-related tasks designed to help develop the skills and knowledge needed to do a job effectively.NVQs are based on national standards for various occupations. They are available in the vast majority of business sectors, including:
  • Business and administration
  • Sales, marketing and distribution

  • Health and social care

  • Food, catering and leisure services

  • Construction and property

  • Manufacturing, production and engineering
NVQs are assessed on practical assignments and a portfolio of evidence. Normally, a qualified assessor observes and questions the student about the work carried out in the workplace or a realistic working environment.Assessors test knowledge and understanding, as well as performance. They will sign off individual units of the NVQ when students have reached the required standard.

Relocate Global: helping families make school choices

Relocate Global’s new annual Guide to International Education & Schools provides a wealth of advice to anyone searching for a new school in the UK and in an international setting, and offers insights into what it takes to make the right school choice. 

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