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It's not only the type of qualification you need to think about; the subjects you opt to study at 14+ can have far reaching consequences on A level and beyond. Careers and university options may seem like distant dreams, but it's important you check out advanced course requirements now, if you want to avoid a nightmare later. Ensure that your options will enable to you take the courses you want at A level and university.


The principal exam taken in year 11 in England. Most take a basic core that includes English, maths, sciences and a humanity (eg geography or history) plus optional extras. Generally felt to be uninspiring and formulaic, they are gradually undergoing a reorganisation which, we are told, will ‘add rigour’. This will include a grading system in numbers rather than letters, most assessment by external final exams with nearly all coursework and practical work abolished and few resit opportunities.


Has been around for years, and is much used abroad – hence the ‘I’ for International.

  • It’s closer to the old-style O level, and is becoming increasingly used by private schools, but the jury is out on whether or not it is more challenging than GCSEs – which are in any case being redesigned along similar lines.
  • It wasn't until 2010 that QCA recognised this qualification, thus enabling state schools to add it to their diet, but it is now, again, not recognised for league table purposes – so many top-performing schools have slid back to the bottom of the tables..

IB Middle Years

The IB organisation provides a structure for the years running up to the sixth form diploma, which can embrace whatever national curriculum it finds itself surrounding.

  • No exams – moderated teacher assessment.
  • Because it does not provide formal qualifications at the age of 16, you need to be sure that it will be accepted by whatever educational institution or employer your child will face next.
  • Well-understood internationally, but only available in a few international schools in the UK.

National 4 and 5 qualifications - the Scottish equivalent to GCSEs. 

Introduced in 2013 in Scotland to replace Standard Grade and Intermediate qualifications. In mirror image of the English exam changes, these aim to develop skills alongside knowledge and include more emphasis on coursework and ongoing assessment.

Vocational qualifications

The last decade saw a burgeoning of vocational qualifications – some of dubious value with greatly over-inflated points in performance tables. Hardly surprising, then, that schools with a canny eye on league tables in some cases directed youngsters towards vocational qualifications to boost their own league table positions rather than because they were the best qualifications for the student. Now vocational qualification are in theory only recognised if they meet strict criteria including: proven progression to a broad range of qualifications post-16 options. Moreover they must be at least 'the size of a GCSE' and graded (not simple pass/fail), with a substantial proportion externally assessed. However, there are still accusations of schools entering whole classes for eg the European Computer Driving Licence, which can be taught in just three days, but counts as a GCSE equivalent.

It is crucial that you quiz each school on:

(a) what proportion of pupils finish the course,
(b) what proportion just pass, and what proportion do really well
(c) what pupils have gone on to do afterwards
(d) how well they prepare students for further study
(e) whether the qualifications count in the league tables. 

A good school running a good course will keep in touch with as many of its graduates as possible. If you want to keep your options open, look carefully in this data for evidence that pupils who have set out on a vocational route have been able to come back to more academic study later on.

More details at:


Faced with the widespread dissatisfaction with GCSEs, individual entrepreneurial schools have begun to go their own way.

You may come across Vedic mathematics (in the St James's group of schools).

Bedales’ BACs are GCSE alternatives which aim to offer more room for imagination and exploration for non-core subjects, and are an innovation that we are totally delighted by.

St Paul’s Girls’ School offers its own Visual Arts Course alternative to GCSE art and its own internally devised music GCSE course.

Asdan and other awards

These awards are primarily aimed at young-people in the 11-25 age group who may have learning or other difficulties. Assessment-based Asdan, and others, provide flexible ways to accredit young people for skills and personal qualities they have developed.


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