IGCSE, GCSE and Cambridge O Level: Curriculum, Grading System & More


The IGCSE (International General Certificate of Secondary Education) and the GCSE (General Certificate of Secondary Education) are very much similar and are equally accepted in the top universities as equivalent qualifications.

GCSE is a subject-based academic qualification offered to students during their high school years and signifies the completion of Secondary Education in the UK. British students typically take their GCSE at the end of year 11 when they are 16 years old. It takes between two and three years to complete the GCSEs. The IGCSE also offers the same level of education as a traditional GCSE but without a UK-centric curriculum or content. For example, in GCSE English, Literature, History and Geography, syllabus revolves and emphasizes on the nationally relevant topics, whereas in IGCSE curriculum, these subjects are more general and international.

Apart from this basic and general difference, how is GCSE compared to the IGCSE and the Cambridge O Levels.


GCSE, IGCSE and Cambridge O levels as Curriculums

As mentioned above, GCSE is specifically for the UK students offered by the state, private and independent schools. In contrast IGCSE is offered internationally and is available in around 150 countries, including UK. So, the students can choose a GCSE or IGCSE, Both the qualifications are to be studied at age 16 and both take around 2 years of study to achieve the respective qualification.

Cambridge O levels are similar to IGCSE but are customized as per the specific local curricula needs such as minority languages. It is offered in Singapore, Hing Kong, Malaysia, Sri Lanka, and few other countries. Also, it offers fewer coursework options compared to the other two curricula. For example, In Singapore, the Cambridge O level syllabus is designed by the Singapore Ministry of Education to teach the Singapore students.


International Focus

Almost 4500 schools across in countries across the world offers IGCSE curriculum. The GCSE syllabus is offered only in England, North Ireland, and Wales. And only a handful of countries offer Cambridge O Levels.


Number of Subjects Offered for the Curriculum

IGCSE offers up to70 subjects to its students, including more than 30 languages. Students can take them in any combinations. The groups under which the subjects are ordered are

  • Group 1 – Languages
  • Group 2 – Humanities and Social Sciences
  •  Group 3 – Sciences
  •  Group 4 – Mathematics and Business
  •  Group 5 – Creative and Professional and Vocational

Students have to choose 2 languages, one subject each from groups 2 to 5. The 7th subject can be chosen from any group 2 to 5.

GCSE offers around 60 possible subjects and vocational areas. Math English and Science and 3 compulsory subjects. That means students are able to pick from 4 up to 6 from the remaining subjects offered. So basically, students can do up to 9 subjects in their curriculum.

Singapore Cambridge O Level students are required to do a minimum of6 subjects and a maximum of 9. All the ‘Express’ stream students mandatorily need to take the following subjects

  • English Language
  •  Mathematics
  •  Mother Tongue
  •  A second language or literature in lieu of the mother tongue
  •  Combined Humanities
  •  Sciences (Pure science and combined science)

Optional can be chosen from the following

  • Additional Mathematics
  • Principles of Accounting
  •  Course work (Design and Technology, Food and Nutrition, Art)
  •  A Humanities subject

For the ‘Normal” students need to opt for between 4 to 7 subjects including

  • English Language
  •  Mathematics
  •  Combined Science
  •  Mother Tongue or a second language
  •  Combined Humanities

With optional subjects to choose from the same set that the ‘Express” students choose from.

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Grading Systems

Qualification frameworks are designed to help make informed decisions about the qualifications achieved and those needed in future. Since 2015, the Regulated Qualifications Framework (RQF) takes the initiative of improving consistency and how awarding organizations describe the size and difficulty level, or demand of the qualifications they offer. Grade boundaries began to change in 2017. GCSE moved from the familiar A*-G grading mode to numerical system 9-1. Maths, English language and English Literature were the first subjects to move to his numerical system with more subjects changing in 2018 and finally the remaining subjects moved in 2020. The change to the new numerical system is

  • 9 – High A* grade
  •  8 – Low A* or high A grade
  •  7 –Low A grade
  •  6 – High B grade
  •  5 – Low B or high C grade
  •  4 – Low C grade
  •  3 –D or high E grade
  •  2 – Low E or high F grade
  •  1 –Low F or G grade
  •  U – U

Where U means ungraded.

In contrast, IGCSE uses the alphabet grading system in equivalence to the grading percentage

Grade Percentage Uniform Mark Range

  •  A* – 90-100
  •  A – 80-89
  •  B – 70-79
  •  C – 60-69
  •  D – 50-59
  •  E – 40-49
  •  F – 30-39
  •  G – 20-29

As for the Singapore Cambridge O level, it follows similar to IGCSE

  • A1 – 75% and above
  • A2 – 70-74
  •  B3 – 65-69
  •  B4 – 60-64
  •  C5 – 55-59
  •  C6 – 50-54
  •  D7 – 45-49
  •  E8 – 40-44
  •  F9 – below 40


Length of the Course and Difficulty

The IGCSE programme lasts for two years and is often considered to be more difficult than the GCSE. With the recent revamp of the GCSE curriculum, it has more challenging content and questions than before and now GCSE can be aligned to IGCSE in terms of difficulty levels. Both have a variety of assessment techniques to test the student’s overall mastery and understanding of a subject, in addition to problem-solving, oral, and practical skills.

Cambridge O levels- In Singapore secondary schools, the students qualify for the O levels in the ‘Express Steam’- course being for 2 years. Then they complete the O levels in 3 years in the ‘Normal Stream’. So basically, the students start studying for the syllabus at the age of 13 years and complete their secondary school year when they are 16 or 17 years old. Cambridge O levels prioritise on the writing and reading skills.


Examination Dates

The GCSE examinations are held annually in May-June and the retakes are available in November, whereas the IGCSE examinations are available in November and January for certain subjects and also in May-June each year.


Way Forward after the Completion of the Curriculums

Students on the completion of either GCSE or GCSE curriculum typically pursue Cambridge A levels or AS levels or branch out to the International Baccalaureate Middle Years programme (IBMYP).

For the Singapore Cambridge O level curriculum, students on completion take up the Cambridge A level or branch out to study polytechnic.


What works better IGCSE or GCSE?

Looking at the comparison, both GCSE and IGSCE should be perceived as better to choose as a study option as the differences are minor ones. Both qualifications share the same high regards. And top-ranking universities and other educational institutions universally accept both the qualifications as the admission criteria, both in UK and beyond.

Cambridge O level is equally a highly regarded curriculum.


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Is an O level higher than a GCSE?

No, both hold the same importance in contributing to secondary education. Hence, the O-Level qualification in England, Wales, and Northern Ireland.  Replaced by GCSE in 1986. With the addition of a couple of subjects. Thus, O-Level is neither higher nor lower than GCSE.

Is IGCSE higher than O-Level?

No. Both are equivalent. Thus, IGCSE is equal to the O-Level and offers similar qualifications and opportunities. 

Do universities prefer IGCSE or GCSE?

Yes. Both are acceptable. Thus, IGCSE and GCSE are both recognized by all UK universities. 

What grades in Cambridge O-Level?

The grade took up either 11 years (17 years) or between the age group of 14-16.  Thus, it is considered the final certification for secondary education. Hence, Once a student has completed it.

Is IGCSE stressful?

Yes. Studying for the IGCSE will certainly be a stressful period for most 14-16 years olds.

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