Home Educating Your Way Through GCSES / IGCSES

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There have been a fair few questions from home educated students recently, enquiring about how to sit GCSEs as a private candidate.
As I am a home educating parent who has already gone through a few exams with my daughter, and am currently going through more exams with her, as well as exams with two of her brothers, I thought this might be helpful.

I actually wrote this for my blog a few months ago, but I've tweaked it slightly to post on TSR.


Despite what some people believe, it is absolutely possible for a home educated pupil to achieve GCSEs (or at least the equivalent IGCSEs). The only barrier is finances, as you do have to pay for your exam fees yourself as a private candidate, and this can be quite pricey.


What is the difference between GCSEs and IGCSEs?

GCSEs are regulated by Ofqual in the UK, and they are purely UK based qualifications. They are not available to be taken in other countries, and similarly they are not recognised by other countries.
IGCSEs are not regulated by Ofqual, and they are internationally recognised (with the I standing for International). This means they can also be taken abroad.

In terms of being recognised in the UK, there is no difference. Colleges and universities will accept IGCSEs in lieu of GCSEs perfectly readily.


Why do many home educated students sit IGCSEs instead of GCSEs?

There's a good reason for that. Many GCSEs require practical elements such as scientific experiments, speaking (oral) examinations, or coursework to be completed as part of the exam, and this makes up part of the grade.
Without access to the proper equipment / teacher support etc. to be able to complete these additional elements (most of which have to be signed off by a teacher / tutor / examiner), many subjects are simply too awkward to be achieved in GCSE format by home educated students.

By contrast, IGCSEs are purely exam based, so there's no fuss.

Some subjects are ONLY available in GCSE format, such as GCSE Classical Civilisation, GCSE Ancient History, or GCSE Astronomy for example (among others).
This can be fairly straightforward such as in the case of Class Civ or Ancient History as these are purely an exam based GCSE anyway.
Astronomy is more complicated as you have to complete some observational coursework which has to be signed off by a teacher or tutor, however there are ways to work around the problem. In this case, the Online Astronomical Society is willing to sign off the observations by private candidates for a fee. (They also offer a full course if you prefer, which includes the coursework sign off).

Other subjects have no coursework or extra practicals even if you choose GCSE (for example Maths), but you can opt for IGCSE if you prefer. In this case it's a matter of personal choice.

There are numerous exam boards offering GCSEs, such as OCR, AQA, Pearson Edexcel, WJEC, and CCEA.
By contrast, in the UK there are only 2 exam boards which offer IGCSEs. These are Cambridge (known as CAIE or CIE), and Pearson Edexcel.

Many IGCSE subjects are offered by both exam boards, with the subject content being just slightly different, and the exam formats being again differing in length or the number of exam papers may vary.
As an example, both Cambridge and Edexcel offer IGCSE English Literature. There are different sets of poetry and prose to study for each course, and the exams are slightly different. In this case, have a look through the specifications of each exam board, and see which one you like the sound of. It doesn't matter which one you choose.

Sometimes one exam board may offer two choices for the same subject. Edexcel offers IGCSE English Language A or IGCSE English Language B. Again, look through the criteria of each course and see which one sounds more appealing. You might decide to choose neither, and instead you may pick CIE English Language, which again is different.

As you can see there is a fair amount of choice for GCSE and IGCSE students. It's true though that a few subjects are definitely harder for a home educated student.
Art, Drama and P.E. can be complicated as they are all very physical, so many home ed students simply do not opt for those subjects. There are ways around it though if you have your heart set on these subjects, but you would have to find an exam centre to accommodate the exams.

If you want to go on to take Art as an A Level in sixth form later, it's worth mentioning that you don't necessarily need to take Art as a GCSE. If you are self-taught, and can put together a portfolio showing your skills in a variety of media, many sixth forms will accept this in lieu of GCSE Art, however do check the entry requirements for your chosen sixth form.

You can mix exam boards however you like, and you can mix IGCSEs and GCSEs to suit your needs. There is nothing stopping you from sitting a mixture of GCSE and IGCSE subjects from various exam boards.


What if I've previously studied GCSEs in school and I don't want to switch to IGCSEs?

Well as mentioned above, some subjects you can take as GCSEs without any problems.
For the subjects which involve practicals, you do have the option of trying to find an exam centre which will accommodate the practicals (e.g. science experiments for the three science subjects; the speaking component for English language, etc.) or alternatively you can switch to IGCSEs.
It's not as difficult to switch to IGCSEs as it might sound. A lot of subject material overlaps between exam boards, and the chances are you've got enough time to learn the small amount of material that doesn't overlap.


Finding An Exam Centre

Tutors and Exams is one of the most accommodating for a wide range of subjects and exam boards, and they are the most likely to be able to assist if you've chosen a subject with practical elements. If you're really wanting to stick to GCSEs for subjects which have experiments, oral presentations, or other practical elements, then give them a call and see if they can help:

You can also sit exams at local exam centres (such as 3A Tutors Ltd in Bristol www.3at.org.uk ) or sometimes local schools, but many can be more hit and miss than Tutors and Exams, although many others are less pricey. Fees vary from one exam centre to the other. Google is your friend so do your research.

Make sure you check which exams your chosen exam centre will accommodate before you embark on choosing your courses, this is very important.

Also, check the entry deadlines for the exam entry. You will need to book into the exam centre several months in advance. If you miss the deadline for entry, this will cost you extra in late fees.

Exam fees are almost always separate to course fees. Even if you study with a tutor, or with an online school, you are still responsible for booking the exam at an exam centre, and paying the exam fees.


Does I have to take all my GCSEs / IGCSEs at the end of Year 11?

No. GCSEs or IGCSEs do not have to be taken at the age of 15 / 16 (Year 11 age). If you want to, there's nothing at all stopping you from taking some early to spread them out.

Taking some subjects at 13-14 (Year 9), some at 14-15 (Year 10), and some at 15-16 (Year 11) is very common.
Alternatively taking half at 14-15 and the other half at 15-16 is also very popular.

There is no lower age limit, but make sure you are ready and confident with the material before deciding to sit exams.

In a mainstream school setting, students study GCSE material over the course of two years, but many home educated students prefer to condense this into 1 year, which makes it easier to spread out exams by concentrating only on the current subjects due to be taken that year.

For example :

You may opt to study 2 subjects in the equivalent of Year 9 and take the exams at the end of the year, then study another 4 subjects in Year 10 and take the exams at the end of that year, and another 4 subjects in Year 11 and take those exams at the end of that year


How to decide how many GCSEs / IGCSEs to study.

The best plan of action is to work backwards. If you know which profession you want to have, then look at which qualifications you will need in higher education to achieve this goal.

For example :

If you want to be a psychologist.
-You need to study psychology at university to achieve this goal.
-In order to gain entry to your university of choice, you see that you need three good A levels with at least one relevant subject. You also need GCSEs in English Language and Maths.
-You decide to study Psychology (the chosen relevant subject), English, and English Literature for A levels.

At this point you would look at your chosen college's subject entry requirements.

You already know at this point that you need GCSEs in English Language and Maths in order to meet the university's criteria.
College may also expect a GCSE / IGCSE in English Literature in order to study A Level Literature, and they may expect a GCSE / IGCSE in a science subject in order to study A level Psychology.

So you know by now that you must take GCSEs (or IGCSEs) in English Language, English Literature, Maths, and a science.

You may decide to choose Biology, so now you have decided on 4 subjects.

At this point, double check how MANY subjects your college requires for general entry. Most colleges require at least 5 GCSEs for general entry, but some may ask for more. In this scenario, GCSE Psychology seems a reasonable fifth subject, given that you have an interest in Psychology.

Any additional GCSE subjects after you have met the college entry requirements, and individual subject requirements, are purely optional.
More GCSEs / IGCSEs look great on university applications, but you at least have an idea of the bare minimum needed. If finances are tight, you may want not want to add too many extra subjects. Many home ed students are content with just taking five subjects.

If you have no idea what you want to do in future, you may want to consider a wider range of GCSEs / IGCSEs to keep your options open.

In mainstream schools, students sit around 10 GCSE subjects because they keep things quite broad and open for future decision making.


Do you have to sit GCSEs or IGCSEs?

No. Functional Skills are a valid alternative to GCSEs / IGCSEs, although bear in mind that if you're wanting to do A Levels you'll usually need GCSEs.

Here is some more info about Functional Skills:

There's no legal requirement to take any exams at all, although you may find you need at least Maths and English Language in order to progress into higher education, or employment.


How can you learn GCSEs or IGCSEs at home?

Self study:
The cheapest way is for you to simply self-study using textbooks (make sure you buy the correct textbook for your chosen course, appropriate for your chosen exam board and syllabus), supplemented with any free online resources you can find, such as study guides produced by home educating parents, YouTube videos, and using past exam papers. This requires a lot of discipline and motivation as there are no tutors or regular assignments, so drawing up a daily schedule and being very organised is recommended.

It takes about 120 hours to complete the study required for a GCSE / IGCSE subject, and then you want to add some revision hours on top of that closer to the exam period, so work out a good timetable which will split the study hours over the period of a year.

It's a good idea to evaluate whether or not your schedule is going well for you. Make sure you aren't getting distracted. Every student studies differently. Some can study for hours at a time, whereas others might prefer 20, 25, or 30 minute study sessions at a time, with short breaks in-between (pomodoro technique). Try to eliminate any distractions in the room you are studying in.

Online schools:
Some people want the complication of home education to be taken care of for them, so although this is the priciest option, it's also the most complete. Online schools are exactly what they say on the tin. Online live timetabled lessons, very much like in a real school, except you don't have to leave the house.

Distance Learning Providers and Tutoring:
If an online school isn't quite right (or the cost is off-putting), but you still feel as though you need a bit of external support, you might want to opt for a Distance Learning Provider, small online live group, video course, or a live one-to-one tutor.
DLPs and video courses offer you a way of studying more independently in your own time without sticking to a rigid timetable from an online school, but they also offer full tutor support via email or private message, although there is no live instant help. All course material is provided so there's usually no need to purchase any additional textbooks (unless you want to).

Despite being home educated, if you are aged 14-16 you can study GCSEs in college. Here is a helpful link which explains this further:



How do I find out which topics I ought to be studying?

The syllabus for each subject is available on the website of the exam board. Every website varies a little, but to give you an idea...

- If you want to study IGCSE Biology from the exam board Edexcel, first you would type into Google: Edexcel IGCSE Biology
- Click on the first search result - this will take you to the Edexcel IGCSE Biology page.
- On this page you will see (over on the right in a green box) a link for : Specification and sample assessments
- If you click on this link, you will be taken to a new page which has a grey bar across the middle for: Specification.
- Click the small black arrow on the grey bar to drop down the menu to reveal a PDF for : Specification
This will download the file and you can look through it to find the specification for the subject (i.e. the specific topics child needs to study.) It should also tell you what to expect for the exam.


Resources link:

Here is a good list of DLPs, tutors, and online schools:


This list are the official learning partners of the Tutors and Exams examination centres. Studying with one of these providers will reduce the exam fees if you book your exams with Tutors and Exams.

Whilst you can be sure that all the providers on this list are reputable, there are, of course, other course providers and tutors which are not partnered with Tutors and Exams which are equally reputable.
Last edited by PinkMobilePhone; 2 weeks ago
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Report 1 month ago

Since you have taken your own children through several exams already, I was hoping you might be able to advise me on this problem? If not, that’s fine too, and thank you for all the information you’ve already provided

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Report Thread starter 1 month ago
(Original post by Lwanty)

Since you have taken your own children through several exams already, I was hoping you might be able to advise me on this problem? If not, that’s fine too, and thank you for all the information you’ve already provided

My daughter didn't have a number when I first entered her for her exams. I didn't have to apply for one from the government, no.

I just filled in the application form for my daughter. There was a space for a candidate number or UCI number if known, but as she didn't have one I just left those blank.

The exam centre allocated her a 4 digit candidate number as well as a 13 figure UCI number (Unique Candidate Identifier) a couple of months later.

These numbers don't change, so when I entered her later in for more GCSEs / IGCSEs, I already knew her numbers so I could put them on the application form.

So don't worry, the exam centre sorts that out for you.

There's no mention of a ULN so I assume whatever that is, it doesn't apply to private candidates (or perhaps UCI is the same equivalent.)

Edit : I just had a look at PLRs. They're issued by the DfE which has nothing to do with private candidates or home educated students, so my kids don't have PLRs at all.
As ULNs are tied to PLRs I guess that's why private candidates don't have them.

You really don't need one, to be honest. I suppose you must have one if you've only recently deregistered, but home ed kids manage perfectly well without one.

I've never heard of them before - I guess they didn't exist when I was at school. I guess my generation (I'm a Xennial) manages perfectly well without them too
Last edited by PinkMobilePhone; 1 month ago
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Report 1 month ago
An explanation of UCIs, ULNs and candidate numbers. It's not possible to enter someone for a GCSE or A level exam without their having a UCI and candidate number.

Unique learner numbers (ULNs) are a 10 digit number, allocated nationally to all state school educated pupils when they are 13. If you join a state school after 13 you will get one then but it's not essential to have one at all. Qualifications entered with a ULN are recorded against a student's Personal learning record (PLR). This includes GCSEs, A levels, BTECs and many other qualifications (Music exams etc) If you give permission, employers with access can verify your qualifications by checking your PLR. Your ULN should NEVER change.

Unique candidate Identifiers (UCIs) are allocated by the first exam centre to enter you for GCSEs or A levels (but not most other qualifications). They are a 12 digit, single letter code created as follows:

  • First five digits are the centre's centre number
  • Next digit is a 0 if you're in the UK
  • Next 2 digits are the year the number is allocated, e.g. 21 for 2021
  • Next 4 digits are the candidate number the centre allocates you
  • Finally, there's a letter which is created by an algorithm using the previous 12 digits - it's used as a check that someone hasn't made a typo entering the number at a later date.
Once issued, you should keep it even if you change exam centres or get a new candidate number. Some exam centres (particularly colleges) wrongly allocate new ones as they can't be bothered to type the current ones in but this can cause problems. Stick to one if you can.

Candidate number. This is a 4 figure number used for easy identification - candidates on exam registers are listed in candidate number order and so the centre will need to sort scripts into this order after the exam. The first one you get is the last 4 digits of your UCI but if you are entered at more than one exam centre it will be different at each one and that is fine.
Last edited by EOData; 1 month ago
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Report 1 month ago
Thank you to both of you, this has really helped clear things up

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