HE Exams Wiki
Geometry-1044090 1920.jpg

This page tries to answer some on the common questions about Maths qualifications. It mainly focuses on GCSE and IGCSE maths.

Scroll down to the links section to go directly to information about GCSE/IGCSE specifications, Functional Skills, A levels and resources.

What Maths decisions do I need to make?

  1. Which type of qualification - GCSE or IGCSE?
  2. Which tier -  foundation or higher?
  3. Which exam board?

If you know which type of qualification and tier you want, you can scroll down to "Which Exam Board?"

GCSE or IGCSE Maths?

Home educated children can take GCSE or International GCSE (IGCSE) maths

GCSE maths:

  • changed to 9-1 grading from the summer 2017 exams. GCSE Maths used to be considered "easier", but now GCSE and IGCSE are of similar difficulty.
  • Content is similar to IGCSE maths, but there are some topic differences.
  • 3 x 1.5-hour papers. Paper 1 is a non calculator paper; the other papers allow the use of a calculator
  • There is no formula sheet for any paper
  • Exams are available in the summer only (Exceptions: Over 16s can enter for Autumn sittings, if they are 16+ by the end of August that year )
  • GCSE maths is offered by several exam boards (eg AQA, OCR, Edexcel). There is little difference between the content for the different maths boards for GCSE, although exam paper/question style might differ slightly.

IGCSE maths:

  • changed to 9-1 grading from Summer 2018 (Edexcel) and 2019 (Cambridge). Cambridge IGCSE has two identical syllabuses, one of which is 9-1 grading, the other is A*-G grading.
  • Content is similar to GCSE maths, but there are some topics which are not in GCSE maths.
  • Two papers. A calculator is allowed in both papers.
  • A formula sheet is supplied for Edexcel IGCSE, but not for Cambridge (CAIE) IGCSE maths.
  • Exams are available in autumn/winter as well as summer.

On the Teaching and learning materials' section of the Edexcel IGCSE maths page there is a mapping document comparing the Edexcel GCSE and IGCSE specifications.

Still have questions? Ask on the Home Education UK Exams & Alternatives group.

Foundation or Higher Tier?

(If you've already made this decision scroll down to "Which Exam Board?")

When entering the exam you have to choose whether the candidate is taking Foundation Tier or Higher Tier papers. The papers have different codes.

Foundation Tier

  • Intended for students who struggle with maths or who just need a maths qualification, and do not want to study maths or sciences at higher level.
  • The highest grade you can obtain at this tier is a 5. If your child wishes to do A levels at sixth form or college, do check if they will need a grade 6 or above to do so.
  • The mark needed to pass (ie get a grade 4/5) on the foundation exam papers is higher than for the higher tier papers, but the paper is designed to be accessible and to cover fewer topics, and so be less off-putting for students.

Higher Tier

  • Intended for students who want the chance to get a grade 6 or higher, or who might wish to study maths or sciences at A level.
  • It requires a lower mark to pass (ie get a grade 4/5), but the subject material is harder, so you cannot directly compare the marks.  
  • If the student wishes to have any chance of studying maths at a higher level in future, they must take the higher tier. They may also need to obtain a grade 6 or above if they wish to study sciences or computing at most colleges and sixth forms. Do check the entry requirements for local colleges/sixth forms.

Although you can retake the exam at higher tier after passing at foundation level, in order to obtain a higher grade, generally students go straight for the most appropriate tier.

Ofqual's Advice January 2019:

"There is nothing on certificates that details the tier of entry. So a grade 4 on foundation tier has the same value and is indistinguishable from a grade 4 gained on the higher tier...Tiered exam papers have questions (usually around 20%) that are common to both foundation and higher tier. Exam boards use these to align standards between tiers, so it is no easier to get a grade on one tier than another...There is a ‘safety net’ grade on the higher tier, for those who just miss a grade 4 (4-4 on combined science) but it is narrower than a normal grade (typically about half the number of marks). If a student misses that, they will be ungraded...In general, a student whose target grade is a grade 4 or grade 5 should be entered for foundation tier. We know that some organisations recommend the opposite, but that puts students at risk of missing out on a grade."

Ofqual 2017 advice on choosing the right GCSE maths tier:

"There are two tiers: foundation and higher. Each tier is targeted at a range of the new numerical grades: 9 to 4 on the higher tier (with a ‘safety net’ grade 3 for students scoring a small number of marks below grade 4), and 5 to 1 on the foundation tier...Students can achieve grades 5 to 3 on both tiers, and the exam papers will include some questions that are the same on both tiers. This will help exam boards ensure that it is no more or less difficult to achieve the same grade on different tiers."

Edexcel have some information to help you decide which tier to enter?

Can you take both tiers?

Some home-ed families take both tiers.  However, you can't usually do this in the same exam season, because foundation and higher tier maths will be timetabled in the same slot.

Maths Tier Decision Tree

This decision tree was made by one home educator to help people choose the right tier for maths, but opinion is divided on the 'strategic' approach to taking Higher tier. If in doubt, try some past papers and see how you get on.


Which exam board?

There is no consensus on which exam board (AQA, Edexcel etc) is easiest or better, although some paper or question styles might suit your child better.

  • The most important thing is to find out what exam boards can be facilitated at your local exam centres, as this will determine which exam board your child can study.
  • Once you know which exam boards can be facilitated at your exam centres, download some sample papers from each board and see which suits your child, and/or look at the textbooks and resources available for each syllabus and see which your family prefers.

For GCSE maths, there are a range of exam boards available, including Edexcel, OCR and AQA. The syllabus is dictated by the government and so there is little difference in topics or difficulty between boards. The number of resources e.g. commercially produced practice books and papers and online resources varies between boards. Currently the board with most available resources is Edexcel.

For IGCSE maths, you can choose between Cambridge and Edexcel. There are some style and content differences between them. Cambridge is often considered more difficult to get the top grades on.

For details of the specifications for Maths go to this page


All items (7)