GCSE Equivalent Qualifications

By Indeed Editorial Team

Updated 14 November 2022

Published 20 May 2021

The Indeed Editorial Team comprises a diverse and talented team of writers, researchers and subject matter experts equipped with Indeed's data and insights to deliver useful tips to help guide your career journey.

GCSEs are an important benchmark in a young person's educational and professional life. The results of GCSE qualifications can determine where a student might go to college and what jobs they can qualify for. However, there are academic and vocational qualifications that are equivalent to GCSEs. In this article, we will review what GCSEs are, go over the various equivalents and determine what qualifications are best for you.

What are the GCSEs?

The General Certificate of Secondary Education, or GCSE, is an academic qualification recognised in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. Students complete these qualifications at the end of their compulsory education, usually between the ages of 14 and 16. GCSEs are necessary for continuing on to your A Levels and furthering your education. The UK considers maths, English and science compulsory subjects that everyone must take examinations for. The other subjects to study at the GCSE level depend on what your school offers. Here are some subjects that your school may offer at the GCSE level:

  • Art and design

  • Business

  • Economics

  • Engineering

  • History

  • Psychology

  • Sociology

GCSE qualifications are available in over 40 subjects. Teenagers choose their GCSE options at the end of year 8 or 9 and study for their GCSE subjects for two years. The main exam period begins in mid-May and ends at the end of June in years 9 and 10. The grading scale of GCSEs is from 1 to 9, with 1 being the lowest grade and 9 being the highest.

During this time of studying, students may also take GCSE equivalents along with their GCSEs. These extra qualifications are great for students who want to enter the workforce as soon as possible and want real-work experience. Many employers consider GCSE qualifications equivalent to an apprenticeship. Taking GCSE equivalent courses is also beneficial for students who want to continue their educations and want to take extra classes before beginning their A levels and applying to university.

Related: Higher Apprenticeships: Everything You Need to Know

GCSE equivalents

Here are the most common GCSE equivalents offered in the United Kingdom:

  • Business and Technician Education Council

  • National Vocational Qualifications

  • International General Certificate of Secondary Education

  • Functional Skills Certification

  • Cambridge Nationals

  • Scottish National Qualification

Business and Technician Education Council

Most schools accept the Business and Technician Education Council (BTEC) qualifications as a replacement for GCSEs. BTECs combine practical work with theoretical studies with a balance of real-work experience and more traditional coursework. These qualifications are best for students who know what industry they want to study and work in, but are not sure of the specific job they would prefer. There are over 2,000 BTEC qualifications in 16 main sectors including business, engineering, media, public services and health and social care. You can study these qualifications on a level from 1 to 7, with 7 being equivalent to postgraduate study.

BTECs are available in three main levels of study. BTEC Firsts are available from Level 1 to Level 2 and offer a general introduction to working in a specific industry. BTEC First are the qualifications most equivalent to GCSEs. BTEC Nationals are available from Level 3 and are equivalent to A levels. Many employers and universities consider BTEC Nationals to be an acceptable qualification for employment and enrollment. BTEC Apprenticeships are available from Levels 2 to 5 and provide qualifications for a specific career.

BTECs are flexible qualifications that are great for people who want to balance work while furthering their education. You can take BTEC courses alongside other academic qualifications like A levels, or as a full or part-time course at college or university.

National Vocational Qualifications

National Vocational Qualifications (NVQs) are national occupational standards that are recognised among almost all occupations in the UK as acceptable qualifications. Similar to BTECs, the NVQs base their standards on what qualities employees need in a particular occupation. They are competency based qualifications that teach students practical, work-related knowledge. NVQs cover the majority of business sectors including healthcare, sales, marketing and manufacturing.

They cover all the key aspects of an occupation on a level from 1 to 5. NVQs at levels 1 and 2 are the most equivalent to GCSEs. NVQs at level 3 are equivalent to 2 A levels. Taking NVQs at level 4 is equivalent to a higher education certificate, while NVQs at level 5 are equivalent to a higher education diploma.

NVQs are great for people who prefer a more flexible learning environment and are currently working. Some employers require current employees to enrol in an NVQ course to improve on skills they already have. NVQs require no examinations and instead NVQ assessors observe people at their jobs to see if they can carry out their jobs competently.

Related: The Complete Guide to National Vocational Qualifications

International General Certificate of Secondary Education

The International General Certificate of Secondary Education (IGCSE) is the qualification most equivalent to GCSEs. Just like GCSEs, it is a two-year programme students study with the result being certified by examinations. IGCSEs have the same grading system as GCSEs. The content of GCSEs and the Cambridge IGCSE curriculum have extensive overlap. Some have argued the IGCSEs curriculum is more challenging. In 2019, the Department of Education conducted a study comparing the two examinations. The study found that it was easier to achieve an A grade through the IGCSEs but more difficult to receive an A grade in the science subjects.

Cambridge IGCSEs remains distinct from GCSEs because they are recognised internationally in schools around the world. So this may be the best course of study for students who want to continue their education outside of the United Kingdom. Many universities will accept a combination of GCSEs and IGCSEs from students.

Functional Skills Certification

The UK government developed Functional Skills Certifications as a way to ensure and improve literary and numeracy rates among England's workforce. You can receive Functional Skills qualifications in English, maths and information and communication Technology (ICT). Anyone who feels they have a gap in their education can receive Functional Skills training, not just teenagers about to enter the workforce. Functional Skills qualifications only require about 55 learning hours per course. Once learners finish their course, students can take their assessments whenever they wish. There is no set schedule for studying and completing Functional Skills qualifications.

Students are assessed by physical examinations that focus on real-world situations and problem-solving. Students are assessed by an exam proctor at a training provider, college, school, employer premises or alternative location. Proctors can also assess students remotely or online.

Related: Functional Skills: Definition, & Examples

Cambridge Nationals

Cambridge Nationals are vocational qualifications that focus strongly on practical work, similar to NVQs and BTECs. Each qualification goes from level 1 to 3, with levels 1 and 2 being the most similar to GCSEs. Cambridge Nationals create an excellent start for vocational studies and students who want to advance to A levels.

If students choose to progress with these qualifications, they can study at level 3, also known as Cambridge Technicals. The Cambridge Technicals are vocational qualifications at Level 2 and 3 for students 16 years old and older. These qualifications are for subject areas outside of maths and English, so aren't as relevant to further education. Instead, this route of study is best for students who plan to move directly into the workforce when they complete their studies.

Related: Vocational Training: Definitions and Examples

Scottish National qualifications

Scotland has an examination system separate from England, Wales and Northern Ireland. Scottish National 5 qualifications are equivalent to GCSEs. Students study these courses beginning in their fourth year. Scottish National qualifications are not a replacement for GCSEs but more of a direct equivalent, with Scottish National certificate grades A to C directly correlating to GCSE grades 4 to 9. These GCSE equivalents are only relevant for students transferring to schools in or out of Scotland.

Related: What are the Benefits of a Graduate Scheme?

GCSE equivalents pros and cons

There are many factors to consider when choosing to study for a GCSE, a GCSE equivalent or some combination of both. Here are some general pros and cons to think about when deciding what to choose:

Pros of the GCSE equivalents

  • Most GCSEs are great for learning more about an industry before deciding on a course of study

  • Some GCSE equivalent courses only require observance of work instead of physical examinations

  • There is a wider variety of what to study

  • You can take most GCSE equivalents after you finish secondary school

  • Many GCSE equivalents are an excellent way to improve on the skills you already have

  • Some GCSE equivalents have a more international recognition

Cons of the GCSEs equivalents

  • GCSEs are more established and recognised in more universities throughout the country

  • Secondary schools teach GCSE courses for free, GCSE equivalent courses cost money

  • Some GCSE equivalent courses are only good for vocational studies, not higher education

Please note that none of the companies, institutions or organisations mentioned in this article are affiliated with Indeed. This article is based on information available at the time of writing, which may change at any time. Indeed does not guarantee that this information is always up-to-date. Please seek out a local resource for the latest on this topic.


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