Choosing the right school for our children is a tough decision and often times, it’s not just about a school’s proximity to our home, but also the curriculum taught and the qualifications awarded. In a globalised world, choices for schooling are vast and changing and, as parents, understanding the choices available and what’s best for our children isn’t as easy as it used to be.

SchoolViews has developed this guide to help you understand four popular education systems: the GCSE, IGCSE, A-Levels, and the International Baccalaureate (IB) program.

The GCSE

Our English and Welsh readers should be familiar with the General Certificate of Secondary Education, or GCSE. The academic award represents two to three years of sleepless nights, stressful days and endless studying to mark the completion of mandatory schooling before preparing for university / college in Sixth Form, or opting for vocational and apprentice educational training.

The General Certificate of Secondary Education, or GCSE, is a United Kingdom, or more specifically England and Wales, academic qualification earned by a student, typically by the age of 16, marking the completion of mandatory schooling in the UK. After a student is awarded their GCSE, based on exam results, they will continue their schooling (Sixth Form) until university or college, or opt for vocational and apprenticeship educational training until at least 18 years of age.

For those who went through the GCSE, there have been some recent changes. Until 2013, the GCSE was awarded based on a combination of coursework and final examination, and students were assessed on the content of multiple modules throughout a 2-year or 3-year study period. However, in an attempt to make the assessment more linear, students now complete one final exam at the end of their study, and that exam accounts for their entire grade.

How is the GCSE graded?

The GCSE has also changed its grading system. From 1994 to 2015, grades ranged from A* to G. In 2015, the GCSE switched to a numerical system, with grades ranging from 9, being the highest, to 1 being the lowest. But before you spend too much time trying to understand the GCSE, you should note that the program is undergoing a complete overhaul with a launch sometime in 2020.

The GCSE Grading Systems: 1994 to Present

2015-Present 1994-2015
9 A*
8 A
7
6 B
5 C
4
3 D
2 E
1 F
G

Source: Wikipedia

The IGCSE

The International GCSE (IGCSE) is, you guessed it, the international variant of the GCSE.

The IGCSE was developed more than 25 years ago by the Cambridge University International Examinations, now called Cambridge Assessment International Education. It was initially a way of extending the opportunity to earn the GCSE qualification to students living outside the UK, whose first language may not be English. Like the GCSE, the IGCSE is taken at the end of year 11 following a two or three-year study period, and offered for a range of subjects.

The IGCSE has developed into its own entity, and hasn’t adopted all the GCSE’s changes. Most notably, coursework remains a component of assessment, along with written, oral, and practical testing. The IGCSE is offered in many countries, including some international schools in the UK.

Subject selection is similar to the GCSE, but the IGCSE includes additional foreign languages, and offered for more than 70 subjects in total. Core subjects are English, Maths, and Sciences, and students must take 5 to 14 subjects. Many offer core and extended curricula, meaning the IGCSE is able to meet the needs of students with different learning abilities.

Grading the IGCSE

IGCSE still uses the A* to G grading system, rather than the new GCSE numerical grading. To put the IGCSE grading scheme in perspective, SchoolViews has compiled the following table showing how IGSCE grades compare to US grades and the 4.0 grade point average (GPA) scale:

IGCSE Grade US Grade Corresponding GPA
A* A 4.0/4.3 (weighted)
A A 4.0
B A- 3.7
C B 3.0
D C+ 2.3
E C 2.0
F D+ 1.3
G D 1.0
U (ungraded) E/F 0.0

A-Levels

Originating in the UK and adopted by a number of other countries, A-level stands for Advanced Level, and is an academic qualification earned upon successful completion of an exam. Like the GCSE and IGCSE, A-levels are subject-specific. Unlike the (I)GCSE, A-levels are taken around age 18 (at the end of year 13). A-levels give students an opportunity to undertake specialised study in a few subjects, and their successful completion is an entry requirement for many universities. Students seeking admission will usually sit for at least three A-levels.

A-levels in Singapore

Tanglin Trust School, a leading international school in Singapore, offers students the flexibility of choosing an A-level or International Baccalaureate (IB) Sixth Form pathway. Students who choose the A-level route will take a minimum of three A-level subjects, but may elect to take a fourth based on their academic strengths and their post-secondary goals.

Tanglin estimates that around one third of their students are currently enrolled in the IB Diploma and two-thirds take A-levels. About half of students on the A-level pathway take three A-levels, while the other half take four. Tanglin expects to maintain this ratio of IB to A-level students, or even see some growth on the IB side.

All Sixth Form students at Tanglin, regardless of pathway, participate in the Creativity, Activity, Service (CAS) programme. CAS fosters creative thinking, a healthier lifestyle, and volunteering in the community. Those on the A-level pathway also take the Extended Project Qualification.

Assessment and grading

The majority of the A-level courses offered at Tanglin use a linear structure, meaning the qualifying exams are written at the end of two years of study (end of year 13). Before 2015, students could complete something called an AS-level in year 12, and have it count toward half of their A-level grade. Grading for A-levels is on a scale from A* to E, with A* being the highest.

The International Baccalaureate

A popular alternative to A-levels is the International Baccalaureate (IB). The IB was developed in 1968 and is a framework for delivering international education that strives to prepare students to thrive in an increasingly globalised world.

The IB approach to delivering education extends beyond building academic competencies. It seeks to develop students intellectually, emotionally, and socially by promoting self-directed inquiry, reflection, cultural awareness, and service learning.

The IB consists of four programmes available to students of different age groups that are available in English, French, and Spanish. Its longest running and most widely offered programme is the IB Diploma Programme (IB DP) targeting students aged 16 to 19.

The IB Diploma Programme curriculum

The IB DP curriculum is comprised of six core subject groups, plus the DP core.
The DP core is required and consists of the following elements:

  • Theory of Knowledge (reflection on knowledge and how we know what we know)
  • The Extended Essay (independent research project)
  • Creativity, Activity, Service (CAS)

The six subject groups include:

  • Studies in language and literature
  • Language acquisition (learning a second language)
  • Individuals and societies
  • Sciences
  • Maths
  • The Arts

The first five subject groups are mandatory – students must take a course from each group. They have flexibility in choosing their sixth subject, though. They may choose to study an arts course or may opt for another course from one of the other five subject groups.

Courses are offered at both a standard level and a higher level, with the higher level being more advanced (240 teaching hours compared to the standard level’s 150). Students must take 3-4 subjects at the higher level, and the rest at the standard level.

Schools that offer the IB have some flexibility in how they implement the framework, allowing teachers to take cultural context and students’ strengths into consideration.

How is the IB Diploma graded?

The grading structure of the IB Diploma differs from the GCSE, IGCSE, and A-levels in that it assigns an overall grade based on all areas of study, rather than a qualification for each subject. The IB Diploma utilises external examinations with a variety of question formats as its primary mode of assessment, as well as internal assessments.

For the six courses taken from the subject groups, students earn a grade from 7 to 1, with 7 being the highest grade. These grades are then added, yielding an overall score from 6 to 42. Theory of Knowledge and the Extended Essay are graded differently – their successful completion earns students a maximum combined score of 3, bringing the highest possible diploma score to 45 points. The CAS project is not assigned a formal grade, but is required to earn the diploma.

International Baccalaureate Diplomas are awarded to students who earn an overall grade of at least 24 points.

How the IB Diploma compares to A-levels

Compared to A-levels, the IB Diploma is less specialised. Students usually write three to four A-levels, while students in the IB Diploma complete six courses from at least five subjects, plus the DP core. Less specialisation can translate into a higher workload, and some students find the programme very demanding.

While A-levels offer specialisation, some consider the broader scope of the IB Diploma to be superior preparation for university. After all, many students are not prepared to decide which subjects they want to focus on in university, so getting a more well-rounded education can be beneficial.

The IB Diploma in Singapore

The IB Diploma Programme is currently offered by 20 schools in Singapore, including Dulwich College. Dulwich College has stated that in 2018, it will focus its Sixth Form efforts on the full IB. Diploma. If you’re interested in learning more, SchoolViews has published an article focusing on the IB’s presence in Singapore: check it out here.

Wrap up

There is no shortage of education options available to expat children. The IGCSE provides an international alternative to the traditional GCSE, and students nearing the end of secondary school can choose between pursuing A-levels or the IB Diploma. Although A-levels are currently more popular in Singapore, the IB Diploma is on the rise, with more schools choosing to offer it, and more students electing to pursue it, particularly if a US university is on your radar!

John Clark, co-founder of SchoolViews notes, “These days, kids are fortunate to have the opportunities to explore an education structure that works for them. New approaches and methods of assessment are becoming more holistic, as well as the way coursework is delivered. It’s important to learn about the different options available to you and your children – the one size fits all model is on the way out.