The most common exams found in British schools

SAT exam papers on a table

School exams in England & Wales

In English and Welsh state schools, children take up to 11 GCSEs (General Certificate of Secondary Education) at age 16. But there are different options, especially after age 16.

The English education system is unusual because it focuses on a few subjects from an early age. Even the most general exam (GCSE) still depends on some subjects being dropped at age 13 or 14.

Most university degrees are only in one subject and being accepted on a course will depend on A-Level choices. With most people only doing 3 A-Levels, children must start thinking about their degree choice even as young as 12-13 (when GCSE choices are made).

The English system works well for children who are good at only a few subjects. It is not so good for children who don’t know what they are best at. Wales is developing its own standards, with more focus on technology and creativity than the English system. The Welsh Baccalaureate qualification is part of this.

  • A-Level: A-Levels are a common foundation for university. Just over half of people take A-Levels, usually only 3 or 4. There are also job-based qualifications, such as BTEC National, Tech Level, Level 3 Diploma or NVQ.
  • International Baccalaureate diploma: an international qualification. All students study a wide range of subjects.
  • iGCSE: the International GCSE. The standards can be different to the GCSEs found in English/Welsh state schools.
  • Welsh Baccalaureate (Wales only)*: This combines the Skills Challenge Certificate with other qualifications, such as GCSEs and A-Levels.

* You might also hear about the English Baccalaureate. This isn’t a qualification. Instead it is a group of GCSE subjects that are known to be suitable for most university degrees. For children who would like to go to university, but are not sure what they would like to do, it can be useful to study English Baccalaureate subjects at GCSE.

School exams in Scotland

In Scotland, there is a less rigid structure to exams than that found in England or Wales. It is focused more on a wider spread of subjects, but with less depth.

From age 14, children take National exams. There are different types of National exam, depending on how difficult they are. Children can choose a mix to suit them. N3 is the easiest and N5 is the hardest. N3 and N4 are assessed in class by the teacher. N5 exams are set and marked by the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA). There are other qualifications available for less academic pupils.

After 16, students can choose exams called Highers, or they can do more Nationals. For very able children, there are exams called Advanced Highers.

Other common exams

  • Common Entrance exam: Entrance exam for some senior independent Taken at age 11 (mostly for girls’ schools) or age 13 (mostly boys’/mixed schools).
  • 7+: Entrance exam for prep Taken at age 7.
  • 11+: Entrance exam for grammar Taken at age 11.
  • 13+: Late entrance exams for grammar schools or an alternative name for the Common Entrance exams
  • SATs: Used to get an idea of a child’s performance, compared with the average of that age group.
  • CATs: Used to test for general intelligence.
  • AS-level: A short version of the A-level.
  • Pre-U: alternative to A-level used in many private schools.
  • T-Level: Alternative to the A-level, with a more technical focus.

Image: Annie Spratt/Dreamstime

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