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Why are GCSEs in the UK important?

Posted: 14th December 2021

The General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE) and its international equivalent (iGCSE) were introduced in 1988 and since then these qualifications have acted as the ‘pathway’’ to advanced qualifications such as the International Baccalaureate (IB Diploma) and GCE A Levels. They are the first compulsory, externally assessed examinations that all UK students must undertake in their school careers. As such they take up great significance in the minds of young people and their families. They are taught between the ages of 14 and 16, in academic years 10 and 11.

The debate around whether this type of formal assessment is necessary for young people at this age is wide ranging with learned opinions on both sides of the argument. A discussion that will rumble on for some time until reforms or replacement shift the parameters of education assessment. However, whichever side of the fence that you find yourself on, GCSEs are currently here and are, therefore, important. But why? And why are international pupils from all around the world coming to the UK in large numbers every year to undertake education to this level?

I offer the following in terms of the importance of the grades and academic outcome from GCSEs:

  1. GCSEs can be taken in a wide range of subjects which provide an important foundation for further academic study.
  2. Subjects taken can enhance or limit access to programmes of study (A Levels, IB Diploma etc) at sixth form level.
  3. Top universities, particularly for vocational courses such as medicine, can require evidence of GCSE performance in key subjects as a part of the entry requirements.
  4. The introduction of linear A Levels in England (in Wales A Levels are modular) means that universities are now putting a much greater emphasis on GCSE results as well when assessing applications. They have become the only externally assessed examinations taken by students at the point of offer and therefore act as the only common benchmark available to universities at this stage.

Many national qualifications, taken in countries around the world are ineligible as entry criteria to UK universities and, therefore, taking iGCSEs in their home countries allows pupils a definite advantage when it comes to applying for higher education in the UK.

However, the grades and academic outcomes, whilst important, are not the most important factor to consider when making the decision to come to the UK to undertake GCSEs at the age of 14. In an increasingly competitive market for UK university entry, the limiting factor for international students is not the grades achieved at A Level or IB, but the character and skills profile gained whilst at school.

Excellent academic students from international backgrounds find themselves falling short of their high aspirations because they simply have not had sufficient time or exposure to character and skill development in their own countries in areas that are valued and prized by UK university admissions teams. Not only at admissions stage is this an issue, but for those students that gain entry to top courses at top universities, the quality of their experience can be limited by their inability to engage effectively with the opportunities available and convert their academic excellence into experiential development.

I offer the following in terms of the wider importance of GCSEs to pupil development:

  1. Learning and teaching delivered largely by native English speaking staff promotes the use of English language, considered the most important skill attribute for international students at undergraduate level.
  2. Understanding of the British examination system and its specific requirements provides important preparation for success at sixth form level. The academic rigour required for success is embedded and understood over a time period which allows for greater experimentation and risk taking in academic terms.
  3. Opportunities to engage with ‘broader learning’, allowing important context for the academic study of their subjects. Debating, public speaking, presenting, volunteering, work placement, interviewing as well as the ‘Four C’s’ (Communication, Collaboration, Critical Thinking and Creativity) and other such activities are all important features of a super-curricular programme that broadens achievement and success.
  4. Time! Time to build a portfolio of experiences which build upon each other and create an integrated and solid foundation of understanding of self and how to apply this to a successful and excellent future.
  5. Greater exposure to the influences and positive experiences which make university course and career choice a more thorough and beneficial process.
  6. Increased confidence and self-esteem leading to improvements across all areas of pupil/student development.

International pupils who attend UK schools to undertake GCSEs and A Levels are at a huge advantage compared to those that must compress this experience into their sixth form studies alone. Whilst this is not possible for many, for those that have the ability and the desire to reach for the highest aspirations in UK education, the ‘four-year university pathway programme’ provided by this approach is a definite differentiator in terms of university and career success.



Gareth Collier – Principal, Cardiff Sixth Form College

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