UK High School Courses

At secondary school and pre-university level the three main examinations in the UK are the General Certificate of Secondary Education or GCSE (14-16 years), A-Levels and the International Baccalaureate (16-18 years). Get in touch to discuss whether these courses or a Foundation course is best for you.

The General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE)

UK pupils will sit a set of exams, usually at the age of 16, in a range of subjects at the end of the compulsory stage of their education. Everyone must take Mathematics and English Language, as well as sciences and a language. It is common to take at least eight subjects if the student wishes to proceed to university via the A-Level route or the International Baccalaureate route. If you want to do an A-Level in certain subjects like Maths, English Literature, the sciences and so on, a you must have a good grade at GCSE first.

To be admitted to a good independent school to study for GCSEs the requirements will include a high score on an English language test. If you’d like to do GCSEs then we can advise on subjects choices and places to study.

The General Certificate of Education, Advanced Level (A-Levels)

These examinations, usually taken at 18, were for many years the gold standard for university entrance. The academic level of these exams used to be approximately the level of First Year at university for countries with four-year degrees. Students normally take three A-Levels in subjects relevant for their university course, and many courses require good grades in particular subjects.

In recent years, however, more and more colleges and independent schools are offering the International Baccalaureate (see below) as an alternative to A-Levels, and UK universities are now talking about setting up their own entrance examination.

To get on to an A-Level course generally a good set of GCSE (or equivalent) results are required and a high level of English. Visit or call the GetSet office nearest to you and find out where your qualifications fit in.

The International Baccalaureate (the IB)

This examination is an international programme of study for people from all over the world, but is still mainly taken by native English speakers. It has a broader base than A-Levels because more subjects are studied, and the student takes both literature-based courses and science-based courses. There is also quite a large coursework component, and even community service modules. UK universities will accept the IB for entrance, and UCAS have a points table for it just as they do for A-Levels. Universities and UCAS rate the IB as a larger workload than the traditional three A-Levels route, and indeed a top score in the IB is rated as six “A”s at A-Level. Often university offers for students taking the IB are higher than “equivalents” for A-Levels, but it is very hard to compare the two exam systems. Your GetSet advisor can explain to you which exam would be more appropriate for your chosen course of study and university.

Do universities really accept the IB?

Yes, even Oxford and Cambridge. However they tend to make offers in excess of 38 points, out of a maximum of 45, and require top marks in the subjects taken at Higher Levels. This amounts to a much higher offer than the equivalent A-Level offer. Your local GetSet office will be able to help you decide between A-Levels and the IB.

Why do UK students traditionally only take three or four subjects at A-Level?

The UK system differs from the USA in that traditionally degrees were only for people who needed academic specialisation, rather than just a general level of education. University degrees were for people who wished to become lawyers, doctors, teachers, and academics and so on, so these are all undergraduate degrees, not post-graduate like in America. Therefore, these people were streamed from an early age in preparation for university. For those who didn’t need this sort of academic training, there were (and still are) alternative routes, such as apprentices, technical colleges, and other types of exam.