This is going to be written with focus on those Home Educators wanting to understand the minefield that is exam access, specifically GCSEs. GCSEs are not compulsory, but are a requirement for certain educational and employment paths.
We are so used to going through life planning in a sensible timeline, towards our end goal. This is not the case when planning GCSEs. You need to start at the end goal and work backwards.
If so, you need to know the entry requirements. Kids in school do a dozen GCSEs most of which they have no interest in, but it does leave many avenues open to them. This is why Home Educators need to be a little more prepared as the majority will not be taking a dozen. The college course may require 5 GCSEs with some particular subjects such as history at a grade 7. Or they may require 6 specific GCSEs such as physics, chemistry and maths at a grade 7 or above, then English language and 2 others of your choosing at grade 5 or above. The requirements may be just English Language and maths at grade 4 or above. And some may not require any, but will offer maths and English alongside the course. It really depends on the course. So it is absolutely vital that you check.
If your child hasn’t decided what they want to do at 16 it is a good idea to keep options open, usually by doing 5 GCSEs. Maths, English language and 3 others.
Most schooled kids do standard GCSEs, they often have practical assessments or speaking part components, these are nearly impossible and ridiculously expensive to access as an external candidate. Therefore there is an alternative, these are international GCSEs (IGCSE). Subjects such as the sciences, computer science, English Language etc must be done as an IGCSE. Sciences sometimes have a specific paper called ‘alternative to practical’ these ask questions about experiments for example (some exam boards incorporate these into the main papers).
IGCSE and GCSE carry the same weight with colleges and employers.
You can do a mix, for example GCSE maths, IGCSE English language and IGCSE physics. For subjects such as maths you can choose based on which syllabus you prefer (more detail on that later).
Unfortunately some subjects such as Art and PE are not available as either GCSE nor IGCSE, there are alternative qualifications, to find out more we suggest joining a Home E exam focused Facebook group. However, most Art and Sports courses will accept a portfolio of art work, or evidence of your sporting achievements alongside other GCSEs.
This is where working backwards is helpful, you’ve decided the teen needs 5 GCSEs to move to their next stage, you’ve been looking at workbooks and websites and you keep seeing terms like AQA, Edexcel, Cambridge IGCSE etc and you are baffled, don’t worry, so were we when we started out.
These are the examining board, the company that wrote the exam and gives it to schools, schools can choose any exam board. However Home Educators can’t, that is because not every exam centre offers access to every board. At this stage you need to speak with your local exam centre.
To find an exam centre you can ask in your local Home Education Facebook group, or a dedicated exams group, the EHE team at the LA may know of some (some LAs list them on their website), or you can google them, or ring round secondary schools and ask if they allow external candidates to sit exams (some do). Once you find one or more centres you need to ask which exam boards they offer access to.
Some centres will offer access to many exam boards. For example IGCSE with Cambridge or Edexcel, OCR GCSE or AQA GCSE. How do you pick? We suggest you go to the exam board website, look at the syllabus, the content will vary. Look at past exam papers on the same website and look at how questions are laid out or even how things are worded. Consider how many papers there are for the qualification, and how long each exam is. You may find a preference. You could also ask in exam specific Facebook groups for advice on which are popular and why.
You can not usually book a summer exam until the school year the exam will be sat, and the deadline to apply will vary, so make sure you find this information out when you speak with the exam centre. Autumn exams are sometimes available.
You are liable for the full cost of the exam and any administration fees.
Remember you don’t have to wait until what would be their year 11 to sit exams, you can do them at any age, and do one or more at a time. The only thing we would say is if you are doing a subject specific course they may want the linked GCSE to not have been sat many years ago, i.e. if they are doing Maths Alevel most places would prefer the maths GCSE to have been fairly recent rather than something the kid did aged 11.
You’ve found an exam centre, you’ve picked the exam board and whether it is GCSE or IGCSE. What now?
Now the kid needs to study, there are loads of different ways to do that.
Workbook companies such as CGP sell exam board specific books, many in higher and foundation level options. Websites such as BBC bitesize and Oak Academy have exam board specific content. To be sure your child is covering all the necessary content we advise printing off the exam board syllabus. Ensure it is the correct year for the year they will enter the exam, as syllabuses do change.
No one source is designed to replicate everything the child would have covered in school, they are designed to support classroom learning. So we advise using more than one source. A CGP book alongside Oak Academy for example, then using YouTube to supplement areas that the child is struggling with or wants a deeper understanding of.
Foundation level papers offer the highest grade possible as a 5 (do check the specifics though as this can change), this means the paper will not include the more complicated content and in sciences for example misses entire topics out.
Higher papers sometimes have a lowest grade possible as a 3 (again do check this). These papers will include some of the simpler content and a lot of the higher level content. The highest grade being a 9.
Choosing which one is down to what your child knows and what they are comfortable with. It can be helpful to look at grade boundaries on past papers. For example OCR maths in 2022, to get a grade 5 in the foundation papers you needed a score of 170/300, in the higher paper to get the same grade you needed 82/300. If the more complicated stuff panics them when they do practice papers then maybe the higher level paper isn’t for them. If they can move past questions they don’t know without detriment, and can comfortably do some of the higher and a lot of the lower then the higher paper may suit them as they have the opportunity to get a grade higher than a 5.
You will see various words like combined or double science, as well as individual sciences listed on exam board websites. What does this mean?
Combined science usually means content covering physics, chemistry and biology in the exams but only with 2 grades for the 3 subjects, this is due to some topics not being included in this syllabus. The individual sciences are individual grades and include more content.
If your child has no interest in chemistry at all, then they may struggle with the double/combined option, they could instead do biology and physics as individual subjects.
Each exam board has a differing number of papers depending on which options you choose.
We wish this was a simple process, but we all know that dealing with ‘professionals’ regarding our kids with SEN and disabilities is never straight forwards. So prepare early. Talk to the exam centre, they may be able to offer you exactly what is needed, or point you in the direction of where to get support.
Your child will be entitled to extra time, rest breaks, papers on different colour, bold type, a scribe, to complete it on a computer etc just the same as a schooled child would. However you need to provide evidence of this need either through an EHCP, an Educational Psychologist report, or Occupational Therapist report for example.
Many exam centres charge extra for accommodations, as they often will need to sit the exam in a room on their own with their own invigilator.
Do not be fobbed off, we will help you fight for access if necessary. CONTACT US
You can join us on Facebook HERE
Read the exams wiki pages HERE
Or join one of the exams focused Facebook groups HERE
There is a government consultation about proposed new EHE (England) guidance. We will be producing a guide ASAP to help you respond, so no need to rush in.
For now, have a read, BUT DO NOT PANIC ABOUT THE PROPOSED CHANGES: