All about the International GCSEs

19/06/20207 minute read
All about the International GCSEs

International GCSE and A Levels are an educational pathway available in some of the top high schools in New Zealand. A lot of the students studying these pathways will go on to gain admission into some of the world’s top universities like Harvard, Stanford and Cambridge.

Most students and parents would have heard about International GCSEs from one place or another. But I bet very few people actually know exactly what this pathway entails. For starters, did you know that International GCSE and A-Levels come in different “flavors”?

The most common “flavor” or assessment provider of GCSE and A Levels is Cambridge Assessment International Education (CAIE, formerly known as CIE) – run by the University of Cambridge. But Cambridge is not the only assessment provider out there. Edexcel is an assessment provider for International GCSE and A Levels run by Pearson plc, one of the world’s largest education publishing companies, and the flavor of choice for Crimson Global Academy (CGA), New Zealand’s first and only fully certified online high school.

We’ve already compared Edexcel against Cambridge, IB and NCEA in a previous blog post for international recognition, content, and exam style. Now, we’re going to do a deep dive into what the International GCSE and A Level pathway is all about, the kinds of subjects on offer, how grading works and you can use it to gain entrance to NZ and international universities. This article will specifically focus on Edexcel and Cambridge International GCSEs. Click here for our in-depth dive on A Levels.

A little bit of background, the International GCSEs are based on the UK high school education system. Edexcel and Cambridge are just two different organizations that provide an internationally adapted version of the British high school education to a global student base. Edexcel and Cambridge subjects are very well-designed and follow a logical, structured syllabus with all the learning goals a student should expect to master over the course of their GCSE qualification laid out.

You can easily check out the syllabus of a subject you’re interested in taking by googling “Edexcel International GCSE English Literature syllabus” or “Cambridge International GCSE Chemistry syllabus.”

Curriculum Structure

This pathway starts with students sitting International General Certificate of Secondary Education (International GCSE) subjects. Typically, students sit 4-5 International GCSE subjects in Year 11 (NZ; Year 10 AUS, 10th grade US) and the 1 year curriculum is designed for learners at around this Level.

These subjects are structured as first introductions to the specific topic areas that they cover. For example, International GCSE Chemistry will formalize the chemistry knowledge that students have started to get a taste of in Year 9 and 10 general science.

Difficulty and Depth

The introductory nature of International GCSEs also mean that it is quite easy to accelerate your learning in subjects that you feel more comfortable in. For example, I was part of the accelerate program in Macleans College that enabled us to take 4 International GCSE subjects: English, Math, Combined Science and Global Perspective Studies (basically a more internationally relevant version of social studies) while in Year 10. I found that I was able to comfortably take these subjects with only having studied the general Year 9 curriculum.

The truth is that International GCSEs do not require much prior knowledge in the specific subject areas. This means students, depending on their academic ability, could be ready to take International GCSEs as early as Year 9 or Year 10. However, most NZ schools that offer Cambridge usually only allow Year 11 (or older) students to sit International GCSEs, except for a handful of Year 10 students that have previously tested into an “accelerate” class like I did. Even then, these accelerate programs will require you to take a specific set of subjects determined by the school instead of having the freedom to choose the subjects you want.

This really limits the ability of students that haven’t been identified as “accelerate” to learn at their own pace. It also limits “accelerate” students’ ability to pursue the areas they’re more interested in.

If I had the choice of subject selection at Year 10, I wouldn’t have taken International GCSE Combined Science, which gave a poor foundation in physics, chemistry and biology (more about why this is important when we talk about A Levels (link here please)). I would have opted for a more in-depth pursuit into chemistry or biology by taking International GCSE Chemistry or Biology instead.

CGA’s online Edexcel International GCSE solves this problem by supplementing your traditional schooling, allowing you enrol part-time to take one or two International GCSE subjects while in Year 9 or 10. Even if your school does not offer Cambridge, studying International GCSEs with CGA could set you up ahead of your peers by giving you better preparation for NCEA Level 2 and 3 and IB.

This is important especially for IB because its middle years program for Year 9-11 students is not a good preparation for advanced studies. Most IB schools teach their own curriculum before Year 12 when the IB diploma begins. But with each school designing their own curriculum, the content is not standardized, and most high schools do a pretty poor job with their junior years’ curriculum. Students who take International GCSEs in Year 11 or even earlier with CGA while enrolled in an IB school will be better prepared for Higher Level subjects, unlocking their full academic potential.

Assessments and Exams

In terms of assessments, Edexcel and Cambridge International GCSEs are 100% externally assessed, meaning you take a set of examinations at the end of your study. Cambridge International GCSEs are offered in November and June while Edexcel International GCSEs are offered in January and June.

Almost all schools in New Zealand only offer Cambridge International GCSEs in November as this is the natural end of the school year. There is no need for midyear resits in schools for International GCSE as these results will not be recorded on your transcript and can’t be used for university entrance. CGA offers two examination dates for Edexcel International GCSEs to allow students studying at a faster pace to finish the subject in half a year, giving you more flexibility in your learning.

During an examination series, students sit a number of individual exams (known as papers) for a single subject. For example, International GCSE Sciences usually has a multiple-choice paper, a short answer paper and a practical skills paper that students will take in separate sittings. Each paper has a specific weighting defined in the syllabus of every course. The weighted average of these papers will be the student’s final grade.


In terms of grading, Cambridge International GCSEs are graded from A*-E by the straightforward grade table below.

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Edexcel recently changed its grading for International GCSEs to be the same as UK GCSE grading on a 9-1 scale, which is related to the A*-E grading roughly by the table shown below (the white and dotted lines indicate where calibration between the two systems take place).

Ba 9747 C 76 Aca 44 D 1 Db 41 C 59 E 1922 B 1 Edcc 1973 Mv 2

As you can see, Edexcel now has better differentiation for top/mid performing students than the Cambridge letter grade system as students know exactly how well they perform relative to their peers.

While the percentage grade boundaries may look intimidating, one of the great things about International GCSEs is that you don’t have to get 90% or 70% of the questions correct to end up getting a 90% or 70% on your report card.

How can that be?

Let me introduce you to your new best friend: scaling! Your raw mark will be scaled on a bell curve against the performance of all the other students taking the exam. Due to the way they calibrate the difficulty of the exams, you’re almost always guaranteed to have your raw mark scaled up to a Percentage Uniform Mark. Both Edexcel and Cambridge use this scaled mark to determine your 9-1 or A*-E grade and this scaled mark will be the one displayed on the certificate of completion you receive from Edexcel or Cambridge.

Don’t believe me? Both Edexcel and Cambridge are required to publish their grade thresholds after every exam sitting for every subject. You can easily find these documents on their respective websites.

While scaling is great and have saved the grades of me and my friends in the past, you should always make sure you know the content thoroughly and have done lots of practice problems. Luckily, due to how widespread these exams are, you can also easily find every single past paper for every Edexcel and Cambridge International GCSE subject for free online, helping you be fully prepared for all the examinations.

Think you might want to have a go at taking International GCSEs? Luckily with Crimson Online Academy, you can now study and sit International GCSEs online from anywhere in the country.

CGA offers both full-time and part-time enrolment options, so whether you want to stay enrolled in your current school and supplement your core studies with additional Pearson Edexcel International GCSEs, or you’re looking to join a school where you can take unlimited International A-Levels and can accelerate your learning far beyond your peers, we have an option for you.

With dedicated teaching staff averaging 20+ years of teaching experience and a streamlined online learning platform, CGA will give you all the resources you need to (ed)EXCEL in your schooling. Download our prospectus to find out more about all the International GCSE subjects that CGA has to offer, and talk to us today about whether CGA could be right for you!

If you liked reading this, check out our other blog explaining the ins and outs of Edexcel and Cambridge International A Levels. Comment below to let us know what you’d like us to talk about next in our blog series!