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International General Certificate of Secondary Education  

A child’s educational journey increasingly allows for far more choice and personalisation, and for many international students deciding on their IGCSE pathway is an especially significant milestone. 

Balancing choice, academic rigour, and personalisation with the foundational skills that all young people need is at the heart of a great education, and this balance can be found with the IGCSEs, which are a broad and academically respected set of qualifications designed for students aged 14-16 years old.  

This guide covers what the IGCSE curriculum is, including information on the syllabus, exam boards and its benefits. 

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An Introduction to the IGCSE 

The International General Certificate of Secondary Education is a set of examinations and qualifications designed for 14 to 16-year-olds, although they can be taken at any age. Borne out of the GCSE used in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, the IGCSE has evolved to meet the needs of students across the globe. 

The IGCSE syllabus covers a wide variety of subjects, with no limits on the number of qualifications students can achieve. Apart from the compulsory subjects, students can select their own combination to personalise their curriculum. Normally, a student will study each subject over a two-year period, sitting exams in the summer of their second year of study, typically in Year 11 at age 16. There is no time limit on how long a student needs to study before taking exams.  

The IGCSE uses A* - G grading scale, with A* being the highest and G the lowest.  In many of the exams, there are two tiers. The higher and lower-tier system is designed to ensure IGCSEs are attainable for all levels of ability, and teachers enter children into either tier in advance of exams. 

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The IGCSE Curriculum  

While the IGCSE syllabus on offer may differ depending on the examination board and school, in this section, we’ll discuss some of the core subjects students can study.

A student’s IGCSE curriculum will vary considerably depending on the school in question, with each school able to structure their individual curricula. Cambridge Assessment International Education, an examination provider of the IGCSE qualification, break down the 70 subjects they offer into the following subject groups, giving an example of what could be on offer. Students are encouraged to design a broad pathway that includes a range of subjects from different groups:

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IGCSE Subject Groups 

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English Language and Literature
Courses in this subject group are intended to strengthen students’ communication abilities in both writing and speaking, as well as exploring English and world literature. Courses include English as a First Language, English as a Second Language, and English Literature.

In Language and Literature courses, students embark on an imaginative journey through the study of substantive material originating from all across the world.

Alongside maturing their literary analysis skills, students are encouraged to explore the philosophical, psychological and socio-historical circumstances around works of fiction and nonfiction, in addition to significant texts that reflect the ideologies of various cultures.

We give students the opportunity and the tools that allow them to analyse complex ideas and express thoughts orally and on paper, so they develop an understanding and appreciation for the power of the written and spoken word.

Students can choose two course options, either pure literature or language and literature. In the Language and Literature course, students consider a range of literary and non-literary texts—from print advertising to political speeches. Through the study of both pure literature and language and literature, students are armed with sharp analytical tools and critical thinking skills that will help formulate independent opinions and ideas based on an understanding of diverse perspectives.

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This subject develops a range of abilities, from problem-solving and pattern recognition to reasoning and analytical thinking. The development of mathematical knowledge is a key life skill and serves as a basis for further learning across the social sciences, computer sciences, finance, medicine, engineering and more.

While acquiring intercultural competence and international mindedness, students will benefit from acquiring a wider range of linguistic skills throughout life, particularly in future university and career opportunities.

Students may tackle language acquisition through two courses: Language B and Ab Initio.

In the Language B course, students will further develop a previously learned language. By the end of the course, students will be able to communicate effectively in a wide range of situations and scenarios, express ideas and concepts with fluency, structure coherent arguments and analyse written and material with clarity.

Ab Initio, a Latin phrase that translates to “from the beginning,” is a course developed for students who are just embarking on their journey of language acquisition. This course will open students’ eyes to the diverse communications around them and help them improve their understanding of a language.  

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Subjects in this group cover a wide selection of sciences and include topics such as Biology, Chemistry, and Physics. Additional courses in this group include Agriculture, Marine Sciences, and Environmental Management. 

In Individuals and Societies, students will blossom their understanding of the human experience in detail by studying human behaviour, interactions and societies.

Students will foster the capacity to identify, analyse and evaluate theories, concepts and arguments relating to the nature and activities of individuals and societies. While students may learn course material in the physical location of a classroom, the subject matter allows them to travel all over the world, studying the past, present and future of societies. Students will grasp a better understanding of their place in this world by learning about the experiences of others.

Armed with the advantage of studying Individuals and Societies at an international school, students who complete this course are greatly prepared for life in a global society. 

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Humanities & Social Sciences
This group covers a wide range of courses, including Economics, Geography, and History. Additional courses range from Latin and Sanskrit to Global Perspectives and Religious Studies. 

As the basis of this course, students are supplied with the skills to develop and test a hypothesis, including the ability to analyse data, answer technical questions and refine their thought processes. They will learn how the sharing of scientific theories empowers society as a whole to continue progressing toward new findings.

By the end of this course, students will grasp the vital skill to question the world around them. They will understand how an experimental learning experience illuminates the path to a successful future.

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This expands students’ understanding of languages beyond their native tongue. Courses include French, German, Spanish, and Chinese, among others. 

When students engage in the study of mathematics, they become equipped with an essential tool.

With two course options, Mathematics: Analysis and Approaches (AA) and Mathematics: Applications and Interpretation (AI), we aim to give every student the support they need to become fluent in the language of mathematics, regardless of where their future takes them.

In Maths AA, students develop a mastery of mathematical arguments and thinking, and implement these skills through fascinating real and abstract applications. In Maths AI, students take a practical approach to mathematics and harness the power of technology and mathematical models.

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Creative & Professional
This subject group includes courses in the arts and those that prepare students for the professional world. Courses range from Art & Design and Music to Accounting and Business Studies. 

This provides students with the opportunity to diversify their understanding of cultural practices, as they will explore the innovative artistry that transcends geographical boundaries and time periods.

Students will cultivate an appreciation for creative expression and learn to perceive and reflect upon a range of creative mediums.

These courses aim to teach students how to ignite the light of imagination. They will develop analytical skills and knowledge in the subject of arts with a high degree of adaptability to different cultural contexts. This emphasis on creativity in the context of disciplined, practical research educates students on the dynamic and changing nature of the arts.

Broader IGCSE Aims 

As the Cambridge International GCSE curriculum states, the IGCSEs also focus on developing broader learning skills and dispositions for students to develop. These include:

Applying knowledge and understanding to new or unfamiliar situations – the IGCSE curriculum develops students’ abilities to apply their knowledge in new situations, so they’re able to take on challenges and are confident.

Intellectual inquiry – rather than memorising lists of facts and dates, the IGCSE curriculum instils a curiosity and love of learning in students so they continue to expand their knowledge and understanding of the world around them.

Flexibility and responsiveness to change – through a challenging but manageable curriculum, the IGCSE builds confidence in students, giving them the confidence to overcome adversity and respond to change.

Working and communicating in English – effective communication is foundational to growth and success. The IGCSE curriculum helps students communicate in English, both verbally and in writing, whether it’s their native tongue or a second language.

Influencing outcomes – students develop their agency and independence to positively influence the outcome of their lives.

Cultural awareness – the IGCSE curriculum prepares students to be citizens of the world by inspiring their curiosity and respect for other cultures in our global society.

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The Benefits of the IGCSE

The IGCSEs aim to prepare children for the best possible academic future, with the life skills necessary to be successful. Here are some of the benefits of the qualification:


Respected academic qualification

Your child will benefit from one of the most respected academic qualifications in the world. Thanks to the Lisbon Recognition Convention, IGCSEs are accepted as worthy qualifications in many countries around the world. The convention was signed by 45 of the 47 member states of the Council of Europe, alongside countries such as the United States, Canada, New Zealand, and Australia.


Accessible for all

IGCSEs have benefits for children of all ages and abilities and acts as a launching pad for a successful future. Some subjects even adopt a two-tiered structure, allowing your child to sit an exam that best aligns with their academic ability.


Lay the foundations for the International Baccalaureate Diploma

As the IGCSEs are academically rigorous and include compulsory exams, they offer a degree of challenge that can better prepare students from the IB Diploma Programme. By preparing and sitting examinations at 16, students develop analytical skills and study habits needed to do well.


Learn valuable life skills

The IGCSE curriculum works hard to ensure that students aren’t merely memorising a list of facts to pass their exams – critical thinking, evaluation, analysis, and communication skills are built into assessments. The intention is to develop an enthusiasm for intellectual inquiry.


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Next Steps for IGCSE Students 

Students who complete the IGCSE curriculum are well equipped to progress into further education. International students use the IGCSE qualifications before studying for the IB Diploma or A-Levels. Some universities will accept students who have only completed the IGCSE curriculum, but most competitive universities require the A-Levels or an IB diploma.
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  • What’s the difference between IGCSE and GCSE?
    The IGCSE and GCSE are very similar to each other and are typically accepted as equivalent at most universities. The primary difference between the two is that the GCSE is designed primarily for British students whereas the IGCSE is designed for international students. This can be reflected in the coursework. For example, Shakespeare is a required part of the GCSE English Literature, but is optional for IGCSE English.
  • Is IGCSE harder than GCSE?
    Historically, IGCSE qualifications were perceived as more difficult because grades are based solely on end examinations whereas the GCSE allowed students to submit coursework as an aspect of their grade. However, changes to the GCSE format in 2017 have made this difference irrelevant.
  • Do universities accept IGCSE?
    Yes, top-ranking universities around the globe accept IGCSE as a consideration for acceptance.
  • Do universities prefer IGCSE or GCSE?
    Universities accept both the IGCSE and the GCSE for entry, with neither outweighing the other. In fact, recently the UK’s Russell Group universities (including Oxford and Cambridge) announced they did not make any distinction between the two when considering students for acceptance into an undergraduate programme.
  • How many IGCSE subjects are required? 
    Students are required to take a minimum of five or six IGCSE subjects, including the compulsory subjects: English, Science and Mathematics.
  • What is IGCSE?
    The International General Certificate of Secondary Education is an English language-based examination programme designed for international students ages 14 to 16 years old, preparing them for continued and higher education.
  • What is the difference between ICSE in India and IGCSE?
    The ICSE is an Indian national examination whereas the IGCSE uses an international curriculum and offers a higher international standard of studies. The ICSE is a good choice for education in India. However, for students who wish to continue their education internationally, such as in the UK or United States, the IGCSE is a better option.
  • Is the IGCSE recognised in the UK?
    Yes, competitive universities across the UK recognize the IGCSE and accept it as an equivalent to the GCSE.
  • Can you do the IB after IGCSE?
    Yes, students can move to an IB diploma programme after the IGCSE. In fact, many consider the IGCSE to be an excellent preparation for those wishing to join an IB diploma programme.
  • What are the IGCSE subjects?
    The IGCSE subjects are broken down into the following subject groups: Creative and Professional, English Language and Literature, Humanities and Social Sciences, Languages, Mathematics, and Sciences.
  • What is the difference between IGCSE and A-Levels?
    The IGCSE can be seen as a precursor to A-Levels. IGCSE is comparable to GCSE or O-Levels. As such, once students complete the IGCSE, they have the option to continue with their A-Levels.
  • Should I take GCSE or IGCSE?
    The IGCSE and GCSE are widely accepted as equivalent by most competitive universities around the world. While the GCSE is an excellent option for students in Britain, the IGCSE is designed for international students.
  • What is the benefit of taking IGCSE?
    The IGCSE is internationally recognised, meaning students who complete the programme have the option for continued education anywhere they may go. Furthermore, the IGCSE prepares students to navigate continued and higher education successfully.
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