HE Exams Wiki


I'm so confused, HELP!

The idea of taking qualifications on your own can seem very daunting. The sense of responsibility and doubt can feel overwhelming. We have all been through this and come out the other side! It can be very straightforward and very rewarding. However, there are alternatives, such as early college entry or simply going to college at 16 to take qualifications, so don't feel you have to do this. And, of course, there are home-educated children who go into the world of work or higher education without having taken any exams from home. Just as school is not compulsory, exams are not compulsory either.

Are you completely new to all this, or want a quick overview? Jump to our Quick Start Guide now, then the Jargon Buster the page to go to if you don't know what Specifications, Syllabuses, or Exam boards are. Come back to this page when you have more questions.

Join the HE Exams Community

The home ed exams community is invaluable when you are considering taking qualifications from home-ed. Members have experience of approaching many different exams from home education, and the forums are used to share resources and advice.

The HE-Exams email group allows you to receive emails or read messages on the group site, where you can also search the archives. How to join the HE-Exams email group.

On Facebook, our specialist group is Home Education UK Exams & Alternatives.

Note: these groups are for home educating parents/carers. They are not for tutors or business owners who are not home educating.

Can my child go to college to get qualifications? Or school?


There are plenty of home-educated students who have not taken any qualifications from home, but instead have attended college. Some go part-time to a Further Education college, from around age 14 or 15, to take some core qualifications. Others wait until 16 then go to a FE college or other sixth-form, and they then usually take some vocational qualifications plus English and maths GCSEs in a year. However, you have a limited range of options compared to those who have already obtained 5 core GCSEs. Don't assume your child will be able to do what others locally did a few years ago; availability changes, and so do expectations of colleges. Don't rely on what you read on college websites or prospectuses either you may find that face-to-face they will offer you more options, or may be flexible about course requirements, so it helps to start attending college open evenings a couple of years before you think your child might want to go.  

Going to college early at 14-16

From September 2013 home educated young people aged 14-16 in England have been able to attend college part-time or full-time and the Government will pay for the course. It is up to the colleges whether or not to admit under-16s. These students can do any course agreed by the college, not just a designated 14-16 course. The rules are different for home educated young people because the parent retains responsibility and so the college does not have to make special arrangements for pastoral care or offer a full curriculum. For full details, see our page on College at 14-16 for home-educated students.


  • Students should be ready to start A-levels or similar qualifications at the same age as school students.
  • It is free (if the students attends a Further Education college)
  • Student still has some of the flexibility of home education.
  • Good choice of vocational courses eg Btecs, which are very hands-on.


  • Usually limited range of traditional academic courses available, and often very few GCSEs
  • GCSEs may be limited to Foundation Level - lower grades only.
  • If on a designated 14-16 course, schools may be directing "difficult" students there.
  • May be hard to find a college in your area which is prepared to accept younger students.
  • Many FE colleges are not aware of the special provisions for HE students and confuse them with the general 14-16 arrangements, so you may need to explain it to them. Do your homework before making contact the College at 14-16 for home-educated students page tells you all you need to know.

Examples of students who have taken a similar route on the Personal Experiences page - Fred

Going to college/sixth form at 16 to do qualifications in one year

Many home-educated students have taken this route, usually sitting the equivalent of 5 GCSEs in one year, studying alongside other students largely the same age. They are then ready to join Level 3 courses (A-level, Btec Diploma, or equivalents) one year after the usual age for school students, at 17. One home-educator commented that starting a year later is a price worth paying for the freedome of home education through the teenage years, without any worries about taking exams. On the Personal_experiences_of_home_educators page you will see some examples of students who have taken this route. Sometimes, rarely, a college will allow you to skip the GCSE year and go straight on to level 3 courses such as A-levels or Btec Diploma, if you do well in their own tests for literacy and numeracy.


  • Free at all Maintained schools or colleges
  • Funding arrangements are straightforward
  • Applications should be straightforward; you don't have to educate the college.
  • If you have SEN and need access arrangements, college should take care of all that.


  • Usually limited range of traditional academic courses available, and often very few GCSEs
  • GCSEs may be limited to Foundation Level only, at which the maximum grade attainable is a Grade C.
  • The qualifications you can obtain this way may not be enough to get you on to the course you want to do next.
  • Courses for core subjects will be aimed at resit students so they will assume prior knowledge; you might have to do a lot of catching-up at home.
  • Fellow students will largely be retaking courses and may be disillusioned and demotivated.

Examples of students who have done this: Anonymous 2

Can my child go to school just to do GCSEs?

There is a lot of support available in the home education community, so please do join the HE Exams networks listed above for help. However, some families decide to switch to school rather than take qualifications from home ed.

Your child is entitled to a school place even if they have been home educated previously, and regardless of what year group they are in even in Year 10 or 11.

If you want your child to enrol in a school to do GCSEs, having previously been home-educated, you will need to make an in-year application to schools. In-year admissions means outside of the usual school entry points, ie Year 7 (age 11) and Year 12 (age 16). Search for your local authority name + "in-year admissions" for details of local procedures. Usually you apply direct to the schools. If the schools you choose all reject you, then you contact the Local Authority education department for help. Every LA has a Fair Access Protocol and a Fair Access Panel which finds school places for children who cannot otherwise find one. Even if the local schools all say they are full, or reject your child saying they don't take children in that year, the LA can override this via its Fair Access Protocol.

Can we skip GCSEs and just get an apprenticeship?

Some apprenticeships don't require you to have any GCSEs, so from age 16, you can apply for apprenticeships even if you have no qualifications. Each apprenticeship employer sets its own requirements and there can be a lot of variation between them regarding what they ask for. If you don't have maths and English GCSE or Functional Skills level 2, the apprenticeship provider must arrange for you to study towards these in addition to the training you would normally be doing as part of the apprenticeship. This is an expense and an inconvenience for the apprenticeship employer, so often you will see that adverts specify a preference for applicants who already have maths and English. However, don't let a lack of qualifications put you off searching and applying there are opportunities out there. See our page on Apprenticeships for more information.

Can I take GCSEs from home education?

You can take public qualifications by sitting exams at an exam centre such as a school or independent exam centre as an external (private) candidate. Where the GCSE is not available to private candidates, you can usually take an International GCSE (IGCSE) instead, which is the same level, has very similar content, and is treated as a GCSE in almost all circumstances. Some GCSEs involve Continuous Assessment (coursework) and very few exam centres will allow you to do this unless you are one of their own pupils. Usually home-educated students will take IGCSEs, not GCSEs in, for example, English and Sciences, but GCSEs in some subjects such as maths, religious studies, history, English literature and psychology are available without controlled assessment. The subject pages linked on the first page of the wiki (you might need to scroll down) tell you what your options are for each subject, ie whether you can do GCSE or IGCSE, and what choices of syllabus are available.

Many home educators take GCSEs, IGCSEs and A-Levels and some do very well. Many achieve the highest grades and go on to universities in the UK and abroad. You can read about some people who have taken this route on the  Personal_experiences_of_home_educators page. Many university staff have commented that they like home educated students because they are often capable of working with more independence and dedication than their peers.

Changes to GCSEs from 2017 opened some subjects up to external candidates, eg history and English literature, but obstacles remain for sciences, English language, and some others - see below.

Pros and Cons of taking exams as a Home-Educated Student


  • Student can take as many or as few qualifications as they wish, and choose the syllabus they are most keen on.
  • Student can take exams at their own pace, starting when they are ready. Spreading exams over several years also reduces the risk if something goes wrong one year (e.g. covid cancellations in 2020, personal circumstances) and many people find it less stressful.
  • Student does not need to be restricted to courses on offer at college, or to foundation tiers.
  • Great sense of satisfaction for students
  • Suits students who prefer to work independently or in small groups
  • Suits students who know what they want to do next and know what qualifications they need to do it.
  • Allows you to have a conventional set of qualifications similar to what would have been taken in school, if you desire, but still have the freedom of home-ed.
  • You can sit any qualification open to private candidates, so, for example, your choice of GCSEs and subject combinations is far wider than any one school can offer.


  • Can be difficult to find an exam centre to take external candidates
  • You have to pay all costs
  • If you need access arrangements for SEND this can be very, very difficult and expensive to arrange.
  • You take full responsibility for exam preparation
  • Some qualifications are not available to external candidates, eg Drama GCSE, while others with practical components can be difficult to arrange, eg Art IGCSE. There are alternative qualifications for most of these.

How many do I need?

This depends on what you want to do next. It is possible to do A-levels from home, but if your child wants to go to sixth form or college to take further qualifications, she may need to meet their criteria. Look ahead to where you would like to be in a few years time, and check what GCSE requirements there are to get onto the course. What do local sixth forms and Further Education colleges require for their courses at 16-19? For example, many want you to have 4 or 5 GCSEs at a C / 4 or above to study a Level 3 Btec, and 5 or 6 to study A-levels.

Each college or school is entitled to set whatever entry requirements it wants, and it varies. Some are flexible in their requirements, recognising that home-educated students don't face a level playing field in access to qualifications, but others are not. There is no substitute for checking directly with the institutions.

Which - How important are my GCSE grades? has some useful pointers.

What GCSEs do universities require?

Most universities have some basic GCSE requirements to demonstrate basic maths and literacy skills, regardless of what subject you're applying for usually a C/4 or above in maths and English. Look at the entry requirements for each course. It is common for 5 GCSEs at C/4 to be specified, or alternatives. A few of the most competitive courses like medicine and veterinary science may specify 8 GCSE grades A/A* - 7 or higher.

By the time a student applies to university she will usually have predictions for A-levels or other Level 3 qualifications, and perhaps some AS-level results. These are more relevant than your GCSE results. Universities may use your GCSE results as an initial screening tool, but if you flag up on your UCAS application that your circumstances were unusual, they can take this into account.

Russell Group Informed Choices - straight answers to questions about how many qualifications top-level unis require, which ones carry most weight, and so on.

There is no longer any university which requires you to have a modern language GCSE as a universal requirement. UCL used to specify this, but now says that if you do not have a language GCSE you must take a language module alongside your degree studies.

Should I take all my GCSEs at one sitting?

Some take two or three exams a year over two or three years. Some study just a couple, while others study ten at once and sit them at 16. Because of the cost, many prefer to stagger the exams.

Taking your first public exams can be a steep learning curve; you'll learn how you perform in this situation, how revision works for you, and you'll need to focus on exam technique. You are learning how to sit exams as well as learning your subjects. Pupils in school usually gain this preparation through having internal school exams, end of year exams, to accustom them to the experience. It can be hard to replicate this from home education, so it can be helpful to take one or two qualifications first, and your others at a later sitting. This allows you to learn from your experiences and means you don't have all your eggs in one basket.

Some people are concerned that colleges or universities will not count qualifications taken early or spread out, but on the Personal_experiences_of_home_educators page you will find plenty of examples where (I)GCSEs spread out clearly has not been a problem. However, do check locally and talk to staff at college open days. There are a few sixth form colleges which require 5 GCSEs to have been taken in the last 2 years, so always check your local situation.

This situation is different for A-levels as some universities base offers on three taken at the same time, especially for the most competitive courses. Generally universities will specify on their websites whether they require this, but it is not universal see the Ingle_Family experience.

Do you need GCSE English and Maths to get into college now?

NO, you have an absolute right to education at 16-19 regardless of your qualifications. HOWEVER, you don't get to choose what sort of education that is so it may not be the college or course you'd prefer.

If you haven't got GCSE or IGCSE English and maths at grade C or above by age 16, you will have to continue studying them at 16-19 alongside your other courses. This is a government requirement to try to get extra teaching in these core subjects for those who need it. More details on the English page. Because colleges have to timetable in these maths and English classes, you may be restricted in the courses and levels you can study if you haven't already passed these subjects.

Colleges can set any entry requirements they like the English and maths condition of funding is the only thing that is a government requirement. Most colleges will require 5 GCSEs at A*-C if you want to start straight onto A-levels or a Level 3 Btec, but if you have fewer, you can usually start with Level 2 Btecs or other Level 2 qualifications.

Many jobs and courses at university require a maths and English GCSE pass, regardless of what other qualifications you have.

Even if you don't take any other GCSEs from home, getting a pass in maths and English will open up more options at 16-19 and beyond.

What is the best age to begin studying?

You can begin studying GCSEs or IGCSEs when your child is ready. If you want to stagger the exams over three years then you might begin at 13 years old. Having said that, there are people who begin studying for GCSEs or IGCSEs at 11 and others who begin at 16.

How old must I be to take exams?

You can sit GCSEs or IGCSEs at any age, whether earlier or later than the typical school age of 16. On the HE-Exams group there are several families whose children took their first GCSE aged 11 or 12, though most start later. Some students sit exams later than the school norm, too there are no rules saying that you have to take GCSEs by age 16! One potential issue to consider if taking exams later than usual is that 16-19 education is funded differently from adult education, so if you want to go to college afterwards, you will have a different set of options at under 19 than post-19.

I'm 18+ with no/few qualifications. Have I left it too late?

In the UK you have an entitlement to free adult education to get you up to a minimum level of qualifications. From age 19-23 you are entitled to free courses until you have passed the equivalent of 5 GCSEs and 2 full A-levels. This goes up to age 25 if you have an EHCP. The courses must be drawn from an approved list, but this is extensive and covers many different vocational qualifications. You can't rely on your local college to tell you all the options as some don't offer the full range of funded courses. See our page on Adult Education for more information.

If you are unemployed and older than 23, you have additional entitlements.

Where do I start?

Read our Quick Start Guide and Jargon Buster, if you haven't already! Then look at Study Skills for your options on how to cover the material - a DIY approach, distance learning courses, or a mixture of the two.

How long does it take to study for an exam?

A distance-learning course provider once quoted 150 hours study per GCSE/IGCSE. Again, how you choose to organise your study is down to you. There are home-ed students who have studied for only three weeks and got an A grade! Usually though, a few hours a week over one or two years is the norm. Most people find that studying a subject several times a week works better than having just one tutorial or intensive session.

How much does it cost?

As an external candidate you are responsible for all costs of study and sitting exams and you are responsible for finding and registering with an exam centre. In Hampshire there is currently a pilot scheme whereby the Local Authority will pay for exam entry fees up to 5 IGCSEs, subject to certain conditions.  However, elsewhere you are unlikely to receive any financial help from public funds. 

If you study IGCSEs independently, then the cost of study is only the price of a textbook and exam sitting, so it can cost less than £100 per qualification for the actual study materials.

The cost of sitting the exams for a qualification varies considerably it can be just the cost of the exam board fees (about £35) up to as much as £300 per subject. The cost varies locally. It may be false economy to travel a long way to a cheaper exam centre if the journey will be stressful.

Don't panic-buy and over-spend on books and courses. It is easy to waste lots of money on unnecessary materials at first. Take things easy; most subjects really only need one good textbook. Don't buy Correspondence courses without reading around the subject pages on this wiki first, and asking on the HE Exams networks; many of us have unused courses sitting on our shelves, when a good textbook did the job in the end.

Which exam board should I choose?

It doesn't matter which exam board you choose; they are all equally well regarded. The main options are Edexcel, AQA, OCR, CIE or WJEC (Welsh Joint Examining Committee/). WJEC exams can be taken in England, as well, under the brand Eduqas. You can pick and mix different exam boards for different subjects it is common for schools to do this, choosing the syllabus best suited to the teacher's interests.

  • If there is a convenient local exam centre which is only registered with one exam board, it may make life easier just to stick with that board.
  • Start by checking the individual subject pages on this wiki for summaries of the available options see Main_Page for list. (You might need to scroll down to the bottom of the page)
  • Look at the syllabuses for the subject you're interested in and see which appeals. You can find this on each exam board website.
  • Textbooks and materials see what is available to cover the syllabus you like, and whether answers are available. Sometimes, the availability of a good textbook with answers included can swing the choice of syllabus. Again, see individual subject pages on this wiki for book recommendations.
  • You can use more than one exam centre if necessary, but beware of exam clashes or difficult journeys if you end up having a morning exam in one centre and an afternoon one in another.

Is one exam board easier than the others? Is one more respected?

No, they are all worth the same. Many teachers have an opinion and think that everyone knows exam board X is easier/harder, but there is no consensus about which exam board X is!

Exam board styles vary, and the difficulty may vary a little from subject to subject, but none is easiest overall, and none is more respected overall. An IGCSE is worth the same regardless of the exam board, and nobody is ever likely to ask which exam board you used. Universities do not have any preferences for particular exam boards.

However, one exam board may be better for you in a particular subject. The variation in styles means you may find that one syllabus suits you much more than another, so do read through the subject page and then post on the HE Exams group to help you choose the best one.

Here is one teacher's opinion .

Where can I sit an exam?

You will need to find an appropriate centre which is accredited with an awarding organisation (usually referred to as an "exam board") such as Edexcel, AQA, OCR, CAIE or WJEC. Finding an exam centre can be difficult and you should start early. There is a page on this wiki dedicated to crowdsourcing examination centres that accommodate private candidates and which have been used by other home-educators: Finding_an_exam_centre. The exam boards all have lists of schools which supposedly accept external candidates, but in practice these do not tell the whole story. Some centres do accept external candidates but don't want to be listed as such on the exam board sites, while others only rarely accept externals but are still listed. Start with the wiki exam centres list, then ask the home-ed community, then the exam board sites, then try contacting local schools to ask if they accept private candidates for exam sittings but please see the advice on Finding_an_exam_centre before doing so.

It may be difficult to find exam centres for GCSEs and IGCSEs in Scotland, although there are some see Finding_an_exam_centre.

How do I register to take an exam?

You deal with the exam centre, not the exam board. Each exam centre will have its own procedures for making entries see Making entries and sitting exams for what information the exams officer will need. 

For summer exams, most exam centres take entries in December and January, though later entries are usually possible at a price. However, although you will not formally make your entries before this, it is wise to find an exam centre as early as possible. Ideally, when you are ready to begin studying for a qualification, make informal enquiries of local centres before you buy any materials, as their preferred exam board may influence your choice of syllabus. To do this, see Finding_an_exam_centre; you may be more likely to get a positive response if you do so in writing, ie by email. 

If there is a convenient local exam centre but it only uses one exam board (eg Edexcel, AQA, OCR, CIE), then you may decide to limit your choices to their syllabuses. However, there is nothing to stop you travelling further afield to a different exam centre for one subject if you much prefer their syllabus.

Plenty of families do start a course and then look for an exam centre nearer the time. If you want to sit exams in the summer of next year, it would be sensible to start looking for an exam centre in the autumn term beforehand. Depending on where you live, you may have to travel sometimes candidates stay overnight nearby to avoid a morning rush, if they live many miles from the exam centre.

Special Educational Needs and Disabilities and Access Arrangements my child needs extra time, a scribe or a computer can this be done?

Yes, home-ed students can still have access arrangements (AAs) if they have special educational needs, but it can sometimes be difficult to arrange as it involves extra work for the exam centre. Please see the page on Access Arrangements for the latest situation. Private candidates simply do not have a right to extra time etc. unless it can be arranged through an exam centre.

This can be very expensive and, depending on the AA required, very difficult. It's not fair. It is one reason why families of children with SEN may find it easier to arrange a part-time college course for them to take exams; in this situation, the college should deal with all arrangements and costs.

This is also a good reason for considering very carefully whether removing children with SENDs from school just prior to exams where Access Arrangements are already in place is the best decision.

Schools do not have to take private candidates in any situation and the provisions of the Equality Act 2010 do not compel them to offer access arrangements to private candidates, so our approach to exam centres has to be one of asking for a favour, rather than demanding a right.

Where do I find past exam papers?

See our page Past Papers for links and advice. 

GCSEs are changing how does this affect us?

Some more subjects have become available to external candidates, but not many. See GCSE Reforms. IGCSEs are still available

Do home-educated students have to do the EBacc?

No.The government wants state schools to ensure that pupils take GCSEs in a range of core subjects known as the EBacc. A student who gets good passes in all of them is said to have an EBacc. This is a school performance measure and isn't a requirement for individual students.

This has been reported in the press as, for instance:

"From September, all pupils starting secondary school will have to study English, a language, maths, science and history or geography at GCSE, in the EBacc." (BBC Education)

There is no obligation for individual students to take exams in all of these subjects. It's a requirement for state schools to offer the exams, not for children to take them. Schools won't be able to get a top rating from Ofsted unless they offer GCSEs in these subjects. Therefore, it should not affect home-educated students. As it doesn't specify which of history or geography, and which particular modern language, there will not be a core set of skills or knowledge which are expected in further education or employment beyond English, maths and science to some level.

Will employers all expect students to have the EBacc?

Some schools staff have been saying this, but there is no evidence that employers are asking for history/geography or any particular modern foreign language. While many home educators do prefer to support their children in gaining qualifications over a range of subjects, there doesn't seem to be any compelling reason to stick to the ones specified in the EBacc.

Jury is out on new GCSEs Times Education Supplement

Traditional GCSE Subjects for all pupils BBC Education

Schools will reject requirement to teach EBacc to all BBC Education

Course Providers

While many HEs study independently using just textbooks, some prefer to hire tutors or buy courses. The courses can vary considerably in quality and cost. There are a number of course providers who are marketing to Home Educators. See the CorrespondenceCourses page and also subject pages for more suggestions return to the Main_Page to see the list of subjects. (You might need to scroll down the page for the subject links). Do have a look at Study Skills too for advice on taking a DIY approach, which is cheaper and has worked well for many.


The IGCSE page can answer the following questions

  1. What are IGCSEs?
  2. Are IGCSEs equivalent to GCSEs?
  3. What are the advantages of IGCSEs for home educators?
  4. Do we have to do IGCSEs?
  5. Which exam boards offer IGCSEs?
  6. Are IGCSEs regulated?

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