What Do GCSE and IGCSE Grades Mean?

It’s been a few years since the 9-1 grading system replaced the traditional A*-G grades but there can still be some confusion over the numbered exam results, what counts as a pass, and which are the top grades. This is everything you need to know.
What Do GCSE and IGCSE Grades Mean?
By Carli Allan
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Many students (and parents) around the world are waiting in anticipation for the imminent release of GCSE (General Certificate of Secondary Education) and IGCSE results on August 24 – while others will be entering their I/GCSE schooling phase after the summer.

Whether you’re fully in the swing of I/GCSEs or totally new to this chapter, you’ve probably got plenty of questions. 

From understanding the new 9-1 grading system to taking an honest look at the importance of the post-16 qualification, this is your essential guide to everything you need to know about I/GCSE results and more.

What do GCSE grades mean?

You probably remember the A* - G GCSE grading system which has now been replaced by a 9-1 grading scale, with 9 being the highest grade and 1 being the lowest.

This new system (introduced as part of a 2014 curriculum overhaul by then-Education Secretary Michael Gove) was put in place to offer more differentiation between students’ performance; it is intended to make it easier for sixth forms, universities and employers to distinguish between candidates. 

The grading reforms were phased in over a number of years and not fully implemented until the summer of 2020.

As a general guide:

  • 9, 8 or 7 is equivalent to an A* or A grade (with the bottom of grade 7 in alignment with the bottom of grade A)
  • 6, 5 or 4 is equivalent to a B or C grade
  • 3, 2 or 1 is equivalent to a D, E or F grade
  • U mark is judged as ungraded

A ‘standard pass’ under the new system is a 4 (equivalent to a grade C), with 5 being a ‘strong pass’; most school league tables are based on the percentage of pupils who achieve a 5 or above in maths and English GCSEs and many sixth forms ask for a minimum number of 5s and 6s as a condition of entry. 

The way that GCSE grades are calculated varies for each subject and exam format but, generally, results are determined by the total number of marks obtained in an exam paper.

Grade boundaries vary depending on the subject and the exam board. There are five boards used across England, Wales and Northern Ireland including AQA, Pearson Edexcel, OCR, CCEA, and WJEC. All five exam boards are regulated by the Office of Qualifications and Examinations Regulation (Ofqual).

There is no cap on the number of students that can get a particular grade.

How are IGCSEs graded?

International schools and UK independent schools often offer the International General Certificate of Secondary Education (IGCSE), which is the international version of the GCSE, for some or all subjects.

IGCSEs are accredited by either the Cambridge or Edexcel (Pearson Edexcel) exam boards, and grade boundaries for IGCSEs vary depending on the subject and the exam board.

Pearson Edexcel follows the 9-1 scale, with 9 being the highest and 1 the lowest grade, for all IGCSEs. Cambridge IGCSEs are graded A*-G around the world. However, Cambridge does offer 9-1 grading in a select region, which includes the UK, but schools in this region can continue to have their exams graded A*-G if they wish. 

Why are GCSEs and IGCSEs  important?

GCSEs (and IGCSEs) are important for a number of reasons, not least because they are a good measure of how much information, knowledge and understanding students have managed to acquire during their secondary education. GCSEs serve as the foundation for further education and are most often considered as the minimum educational requirement for many career paths and advanced study options. 

In the UK, GCSEs will pave the way for sixth form and A Levels. Entry requirements for A Level courses vary, but some sixth forms may say you can’t do a particular subject unless you’ve got at least a 6 or 7 in that subject at GCSE.

Likewise, prospective employers will look at a minimum level of GCSE qualifications, particularly in maths and English, when hiring for positions – and good grades will certainly set a candidate apart from others. 

Do I/GCSEs matter for university?

While universities primarily focus on A Level or IB results when offering places, I/GCSEs do have a level of importance in the admissions process, particularly for students applying to UK universities. Most universities look for at least a pass (grade 4 or above) in the core subjects (maths and English), regardless of the degree course you are applying for. 

Some university courses ask for specific subjects with certain grades at GCSE. GCSEs can be used as an indicator of a student’s overall academic ability and consistency and are often considered if there is a particular subject that is relevant to the chosen university course; for example, a medicine degree will ask for strong GCSEs in English, maths and science.

Tanglin Trust School is one of Singapore’s most British schools, and more 50% of its students go on to a UK university. Michael Roberts, Tanglin’s Head of Upper School, says that I/GCSE passes in English and maths are still “essential currency” for university applications. 

“For professional degrees such as teaching or medicine, the minimum grade is often a 5. When students apply to university, they are still months away from sitting terminal IB and A Level exams, so the I/GCSE grades are a very clear and ratified piece of evidence of a student’s academic ability.

“If a student is, for example, predicted three As at A Level, or 40 points at IB, you can be sure that many other students applying for the same place will be predicted the same. The I/GCSE results then help university admissions departments to differentiate between students who look similar on paper."

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