Secondary school exams in England, UK

Exams in England – GCSE, A-level, Cambridge Pre-U, BTEC, Extended Project Qualification

Apart from GCSEs all other types of exams listed here are the end-of-school exams, which students are to pass on the last year of school – Year 13.

secondary school exams in England



GCSE – General Certificate of Standard Education are mandatory exams in England and Wales for all school students. Students pass them at the age of 14-16. Exams GCSE consist of a number of compulsary subjects and optional subjects. Compulsary subjects include English language, English literature, maths, at least one science subject (biology, chemistry, physics). Optional subjects are modern languages, classical languages (Latin or ancient Greek), humanities (history, geography or religious studies), creative subjects (art, music, drama), etc


A-levels are exams in England and Wales, which school children pass after GCSEs and before they enter a university at the age of 16-18. Based on the results of A-levels, the UK universities make decisions of offering a place to students. A-levels usually are made of 3 to 4 exams. The stage when children are preparing for their A-levels is called the 6th form, which is the last two years of school (Year 12 and 13). Exams of A-level are different from GCSEs by more depth of subject and preparation as well as a number of self-study hours and quality of participation in class discussions. Unlike GCSEs A-levels have a number of alternative exam such as International Baccalaureate, BTEC and Cambridge Pre-U.


International Baccalaureate or IB


IB a qualification recognised all over the world. The British children pass International Baccalaureat exams on the last year of the school and prepare for them from the age of 16 to 18 while studying on the 6th form. There are currenly over 200 British schools, that prepare for IB qualification and their number is steadily growing. The most of the well-known offering the IB program is Sevenoaks school (IB-only program), Wellington College, Godolphin and Latymer School, North London Collegiate School, King’s College School, etc

In order to pass the exam and receive the IB diploma it is necessary to pass the theory of knowledge, write an essay of 4000 words, demonstrate an interest to non-academic subjects and of course pass the exams. A number of exams are to done on standard level, and the other part – in high level. The IB subjects are the first modern language (usually native), another modern language, sciences (biology, chemistry, physics), maths, computer sciences, creative subjects (art, drama, or music), humanities.


Other alternative forms of A-level exams


BTEC stands for Business and Technology Education Council and is a qualification given to children at the end of school. BTEC Diploma is accepted by the majority of British universities with exclusion of universities of Oxford, Cambridge, UCL, unless they are underpinned by the traditional A Level.

The universities give of offers of acceptance based on the provisional exam results. 

BTEC is a vocational qualification where children learn professional skills in addition to the knowledge of certain subjects. Diploma of BTEC can be obtained in the following professional fields:

  • vocational sciences
  • art and design
  • business
  • computers
  • education and children care
  • digital media technologies
  • pre-school and school education
  • engineering
  • beauty services
  • hospitality
  • social services
  • music and music technology
  • performing arts
  • social sciences
  • sport sciences
  • tourism

BTEC is very popular for children finishing school and wishing to work in the fields such as health care and getting a diploma of a nurse. In this case 3rd level BTEC gives a more serious preparation than traditional A Levels.   

Requirements for getting BTEC Diploma are at least 5 GCSEs marked A*, A, B or C (the old marking system) for subjects such as English language, maths and sciences.

Advantage of BTEC

1. This is vocational – unlike A-Levels, BTECs will suit students who are not sure if they want to continue studies and go to higher education. Upon turning 18 years old these children can start working. Still, if they wish so they can go to a university after getting BTEC Diploma 3rd level. 

2. BTEC presents an opportunity to get work experience in addition to the subject knowledge. Later on, it will help a lot with the job search and composing a CV.

Cambridge Pre-U


Cambridge Pre-U – British diploma for children finishing secondary school, which was developed by Cambridge International Examinations. It also is an alternative to A-level. Children can prepare and pass Cambridge Pre-U from the age of 16-18. Cambridge Pre-U is recognised by all British universities. 

The qualification of Cambridge Pre-U was first introduced in 2008 with the purpose of creating a qualification offering a deeper knowledge of a subject when compared to A-Levels. The majority of private schools, day as well as boarding, offer preparation for Cambridge Pre-U for certain subjects. Nowadays state schools are joining them too. 

Winchester College and Charterhouse were the first British schools, that introduced Pre-U on all main subjects studying in the sixth form.

Since A-levels constantly altered and updated some schools decided to switch to Cambridge Pre-U completely (or to other exam forms such as IB) with the idea of giving children more stable educational format. Unlike International Baccalaureate and similar to A level the Cambridge Pre-U doesn’t have mandatory subjects and students have a choice of 27 subjects to choose from. 

According to the Cambridge International Examinations the Cambridge Pre-U exams are currently also recognised by the prestigious universities of Ivy League. 

Main subjects for the Cambridge Pre-U:

  • English literature
  • Humanities: geography, global perspective, history, classics, philosophy, theology 
  • Languages: ancient Greek, Spanish, Italian, Mandarin, Latin, German, Russian, French 
  • Maths and Further Maths
  • Sciences – biology, chemistry, physics
  • Social sciences: business and management, economics, government and politics, phsychology  
  • Creative subjects: art, design, history of art, music, drama 


How the Cambridge Pre-U is marked:

Each subject is marked out of 9 in the three main belts 

Belt                   Mark         A-level equivalent 
Distinction  D1 n/a
D2 A*
D3 A*/A
Merit  M1 A/B
M2 B
M3 C
Pass  P1 C/D
P2 D
P3 E

Extended Project Qualification

Extended Project Qualification (EPQ) is a qualification for British students that is equal to 1/2 A level. EPQ was developed by Michael Thomlinson in 2006 году while he was observing the studies of the children from 16 to 19 years old.

In order to pass the exam and receive the EPQ qualification students should choose a subject of their interest, create a plan, collect and analyse the information as well as prepare a presentation. EPQ can have a format of a dissertation (the norm here is 5000 words), a musical or drama performance, an art-object or design project (in combination of a 1000-words-report). In average, it takes about 120 hours of work and study. 

A number of students taking the EPQ increased significantly in the last years. About 30.000 school children choose the Extended Project Qualification every year and this number is continuously growing. Universities positively regard the EPQ and appreciate its academic content. EPQ also allows for developing necessary for universities skills including collecting and analising information, time-management, presentational skills and essay-writing. 

EPQ is a 100% writen work. Students don’t have to do any exams upon completing the project and usually undertake it on the 2nd year of the sixth form. The project allows students gather a lot of new information and study the subject in depth. EPQ also helps to demonstrate a serious interest to a certain subject, which helps with university admission.