UK Boarding School exams: what are the options?

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UK Boarding School exams: what are the options?

Boarding schools in the UK offer many different types of qualifications depending on the individual school and it’s location. One of the best things about coming to school in the UK is that the different exam systems give students many options to choose from. For every student there is an exam system that is best suited to them and our experts can help you start your search for the perfect UK boarding school.  In our guide we’ll share what you need to know about exams at UK boarding schools and the options that are available.


The General Certificate of Secondary Education exams (GCSEs) are usually sat in England, Wales and Northern Ireland and are the first set of important exams for students. Don’t panic! Students have lots of time to prepare for GCSEs as they will choose their subjects in Year 9.  Studies start in Year 10 and the final exams are not until Year 11. Students will study a wide variety of topics at GCSE, usually 9 or 10 subjects. GCSE grades range from 9-1, with 1 being the top grade. 

A Levels

If students have the required grades from their GCSE exams, they can move on to study A levels. A levels are very popular in UK boarding schools and students will normally study at least three over a period of two years. Choosing which A levels to study is an important decision as some university courses require specific subjects and grades. It’s also important that students consider the subjects they enjoy and are passionate about. Even if a student is unsure about attending university, taking A levels is a great way to keep options open.

International Baccalaureate (IB)

The IB is a two-year pre-university course that is a good alternative to A levels as it aims to equip students with the skills required for university. As well as being a rigorous academic programme, the IB also focuses on developing compassion and intercultural understanding and respect. There are six subject groups in the curriculum; students will study three at Higher Level and three at Standard Level. In addition, students will complete compulsory studies in theory of knowledge, CAS (Creativity, Activity and Service) and complete an extended essay. Assessment is by exams at the end of the second year as well as continuous coursework throughout. As of October 2021, the IB is available in 145 countries and the qualification is highly sought after by universities around the world.


The BTEC is a vocational qualification and will offer students a unique pathway towards university or a selected career path. Studying for the BTEC qualification is a good choice for students who prefer a practical approach to learning. BTEC courses are available in a number of schools across the UK and students can choose from a range of subjects including business, healthcare, and sport. Rather than final exams at the end of the course like most qualifications, students will sit smaller more regular assessments and projects. BTEC qualifications will allow a student to attend university or enter the workforce. 


In some schools in Scotland, Higher qualifications replace A level exams. Students usually sit Highers around the age of 16 or 17. Students can take up to 5 subjects for their Higher exams. Similarly to A levels, universities usually ask for certain Higher entry grades and may ask for specific subjects, depending on the university course. Higher qualifications are less common in Boarding Schools, even in Scotland schools may still opt for A levels instead.

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This article appears in the following categories  Courses & Exams, Education Systems, School Admissions

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