Navigating the Exam System (Part Four)

What is the difference between GCSE and BTEC?

Last week, I went to help out at an event for parents in a school. The event was an information session for Year 9 students (age about 14) and their parents. They were being given information about choosing their exam options for the next phase in their education journey. It made me realise that setting up School Compass as a support service for parents is a good idea…


The eager parents who were at the event were bombarded by acronyms, levels, qualifications and school-based jargon. I understood everything – I have been in the system for the last fifteen years. However, I am sure some of the new teachers standing in the hall were confused. How much the busy parents – who have hardly stepped foot in a school since they left many years ago – understood, I have no idea.


In this piece, I will try to demystify the exam choices for you. It is a complex aspect of school, but hopefully, after reading this blog, you will feel confident in navigating your way. If not, get in touch using the form at the bottom and I will help.

What exams do children sit at age 16? What choices are available?

Are GCSEs the best qualification?

Most students in England and Wales will take GCSEs. More than 4 million students sat GCSE exams in 2021. GCSE stands for ‘General Certificate of Secondary Education’ and this qualification has been around since 1986. There have been significant changes over the years, so the GCSE exam your child will sit may be very different to the course you studied. In my previous blog, I gave a whistle-stop tour of the most recent version of GCSEs. 


GCSEs are probably the most well-known qualification – all sixth-forms, colleges and universities will accept GCSEs. Most employers will be familiar with GCSEs (although, perhaps not the new grading system) and even if your child goes on to study A-Levels and at degree level, lots of employers still expect people to have passed English and maths GCSE. So, achieving good GCSE grades in English and maths makes transitioning to the next phase of education or to the world of work much easier.


In addition to maths and English, most children will also take a GCSE in science – either ‘combined’ or ‘triple’. You can find out more about this here. To complicate matters even more, maths, science, foreign languages and statistics (if offered) have two ‘tiers’ – foundation and higher. To find out more about how this works, read this blog.


Other common GCSEs are in history, geography and languages (called modern foreign languages, or MFL, in schools). Arts subjects (music, drama, art etc.) and PE are also commonly GCSEs – but do check with the school, because some schools run these subjects as BTECs (more on this later). 


GCSEs have a reputation as being ‘academic’ – they cover a lot of content and are mostly examined using end of course, high-stakes tests. Some subjects, such as music, do have course-work – work which is done in school and examined by a teacher – but mostly GCSEs are exam based. Depending on the number of GCSEs your child chooses, they might end-up sitting well over twenty exams at the end of school.


In summary, GCSEs are a respected qualification – a child who achieves good grades in a range of GCSEs will be seen as someone who can work hard, keep organised and produce quality work. 

Comparing GCSES to BTECs

Most will be surprised to hear that BTECs actually pre-date GCSEs – they were established in 1984, two years before GCSEs. However, it was only in 1996 when Edexcel (an exam board) started to award them that they really became an established feature in the education landscape. It is also worth noting that the current government is threatening to ‘defund’ BTEC qualifications from 2024 as they look to replace them with a new qualification, the ‘T-Level’. This will mostly affect post-16 education but it is worth keeping in mind.


In terms of areas of study, there is some overlap with GCSEs. For example, drama, computing or business (amongst many others) could be offered as GCSE or a BTEC. So check with the school which qualification is on offer.


Generally, BTECs are based around more ‘vocational’ – that is, they are aimed at specific careers. For example, common BTEC subjects are construction, electrical engineering and health and social care.

The type of BTEC offered to 14-16 year olds will probably be BTEC Firsts – this will be either Level 1 or Level 2 (more on this soon, don’t worry). These are broadly equivalent to GCSEs. 


BTEC First Level One will be graded either Pass or Fail. A Pass grade is equivalent to the lower grades at GCSE (approximately a Grade 2 or 3).


BTEC First Level Two will be graded as follows:

Pass = 4 or 5 at GCSE

Merit = 5 or 6 at GCSE

Distinction = 6 or 7 at GCSE

Distinction* = 8 or 9 at GCSE


However, it is important to note again that these comparisons are not exact – it is worth looking at sixth forms and colleges to see which BTECs they accept and any entry requirements. BTECs are not GCSES.

BTECs are usually assessed through course work. Over the two years of study, students compile a portfolio of work which is then graded by their teacher. A sample of these are then moderated by an exam board to ensure the teacher has marked the work fairly.


BTECs are less well respected than GCSEs by some institutions. Whether this is fair is a matter of debate, but it is worth keeping this in mind. They have gained, amongst some people, a reputation as not being a high-quality qualification. This view can be held by teachers as well as students. I once heard a child complaining about the poor quality of his shoes: ‘My shoes are BTEC!’ he exclaimed.


This doesn’t mean that your child should avoid BTECs – context is important. What are their next steps? What qualifications do they need? What is their balance of GCSES and BTECs? What career do they want to do in the future? If you child is aiming to get into a prestigious sixth form college, it is probably worth checking their admissions policy. However, having a BTEC as one of your options won’t stop your child getting into most sixth forms (and later university).


If you have any questions or would like to talk this through, please get in touch to arrange a call.

What other options can my child pick at age 14?

What are iGCSEs?

Some schools may offer the iGCSE. This is much more likely if your child is in private school as these qualifications do not count to a school’s ranking in league tables (this is sometimes less important to private schools).


The iGCSE is the international version of the GCSE (that is what the ‘i’ stands for). It is quite a common qualification in international schools. There is not a huge amount of difference between the GCSE and iGCSE – although, some of the course content may be different and have more of an international flavour. They are seen as equivalent qualifications by sixth forms, colleges and universities.

What are City & Guilds qualifications?

Another vocational offer similar to BTEC. At this age, you are likely to encounter Level 1 (broadly equivalent to lower grades of GCSE – grades 1 – 4) and Level 2 (broadly equivalent to grades 5 – 9).

What is ASDAN?

Some schools may offer ASDAN qualifications. These are designed for students who have trouble accessing the mainstream curriculum and will usually be offered as part of an inclusive education package. For example, a common qualification is ‘Life Skills’ to help prepare students for life outside education. They also offer short course versions of many GCSE subjects.

What is EPQ?

Another qualification you may come across is the EPQ – the Extended Project Qualification. This is usually classed as ‘half a GCSE’. This is, unsurprisingly, a chance for students to work on an extended project of their choosing. This can be an artefact (such as designing a prototype of a product) or a dissertation – an extended essay. This is a course-work based qualification, meaning this is assessed by a teacher in the school and then moderated by the exam board. There is no exam at the end. 

Comparing different qualifications

QualificationGradingAcademic or Vocational?Exams or coursework?Other info
GCSE1 - 9. 9 is the highest grade. Pass is a grade 4. Strong pass is grade 5. More info here.AcademicMostly exams but some subjects may have a coursework element.The most common and respected qualification in England and Wales. GCSEs in English and maths are very important.
BTECPass, Merit, Distinction, Distinction*VocationalMostly coursework The most well-known of the vocational qualifications
iGCSEA*-G. U is a fail. C is classed as a ‘pass’AcademicMostly examCommon in international schools. You are not likely to encounter these in most state schools
City and GuildsPass, Merit, DistinctionVocationalMostly courseworkSimilar to BTEC
ASDANPass/failDepends on the qualification - but more vocational than academicCourseworkUsually offered as part of an inclusive curriculum offer
EPQA*-G. U is a fail.Depends, but it is seen as academic.CourseworkClassed as half a GCSE. Some schools may offer this as an additional qualification.

In summary, there is now a baffling array of options available. This can be overwhelming as a parent who wants the best for their child. I hope that this blog has helped make it a little less daunting. If I have missed out a qualification which you encounter, please let me know and I will update this blog.

I am running a three part online course to help you navigate school options and exams. You can find out more and sign-up here. If you would like to book a free call with me to see if I can help, please book here.


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