HE Exams Wiki

This page focuses on GCSE and IGCSE maths

Other relevant pages:

Maths Resources - General and syllabus-specifc resources for maths (textbooks, online videos, courses).

Maths A and AS level

Further and Additional Maths

Functional Skills (for those not able to achieve GCSE or IGCSE maths qualifications)

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?"

1. 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 for October/November (Cambridge IGCSE), January (Edexcel IGCSE) and summer (Cambridge and Edexcel IGCSE) sittings.

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.

2. 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.


3. 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.

GCSE Maths Specifications

This relates to GCSE maths.

For IGCSE maths specifications, scroll down.

GCSE sittings are controlled by the government and are only available to all in the summer. The November sitting is restricted to students who are aged 16+ on 31 August before the exams. One paper is a non calculator paper. The non-calculator questions are designed to be manageable without a calculator, so you don't need to expect terrifying questions.

Edexcel GCSE Maths (1MA1)

Edexcel GCSE Maths (2015) page

  • Specification code 1MA1
  • Exams from June 2017
  • This exam is graded 9-1 and has higher and foundation tiers.
  • Available bas foundation tier (grades 1 – 5) and higher tier (grades 4 – 9 but grade 3 allowed). Students must take three question papers at the same tier. All question papers must be taken in the same exam season
  • 3 papers, each 1 hour 30 minutes. Paper 1 is non-calculator, while papers 2 and 3 are calculator papers.

For Textbooks and other resources for Edexcel GCSE maths, see Resources for Edexcel GCSE Maths.

AQA GCSE Maths (8300)

AQA 9-1 GCSE Maths (2015) page  

  • Specification code 8300
  • Exams from June 2017
  • Available as foundation tier (grades 1 – 5) and higher tier (grades 4 – 9). Students must take three question papers at the same tier. All question papers must be taken in the same exam season.
  • 3 papers, each 1 hour 30 minutes. Paper 1 is non-calculator, while papers 2 and 3 are calculator papers.

Summary of the specification from AQA. 

Resources for AQA GCSE Maths

See the Maths Resources page for a list of AQA student textbooks, revision books and general resources.

OCR GCSE Maths (J560)

OCR 1-9 GCSE Maths (2015) page

  • Specification code J560
  • Exams from summer 2017
  • Available as foundation tier (grades 1-5) and higher tier (grades 4-9). Students must take 3 papers at the same tier. All question papers must be taken in the same exam season
  • 3 papers, each 1 hour 30 minutes. Foundation: Paper 2 is non-calculator, while papers 1 and 3 are calculator papers. Higher tier: Paper 5 is non-calculator, while papers 4 and 6 are calculator papers.



This is the English version of the Welsh exam board syllabus WJEC. If you are considering this qualification, do check that you have an exam centre registered for the exam board.

  • exams from summer 2017
  • Foundation and higher tier available
  • 2 papers, both 2 hours 15 minutes each: component 1 (non-calculator) and component 2 (calculator). Both components must be taken in the same exam season.

WJEC GCSE maths and GCSE maths - numeracy

(For those living in Wales) See here for more info about these qualifications. 3 tiers, 2 papers (paper 1 non-calculator; paper 2 calculator).

WJEC GCSE maths -numeracy - Only available in Wales. "GCSE in Maths Numeracy will assesses the mathematics that learners will need in their everyday lives, the world of work and other general curriculum areas"

WJEC GCSE maths - for those in Wales. (Eduqas is the eqivalent to WJEC in England). "GCSE in Maths will extend to aspects of mathematics needed for progression to scientific, technical or further mathematical study."

IGCSE Maths Specifications

Edexcel International GCSE (IGCSE) Maths A (4MA1)

Edexcel IGCSE maths A specification, exam resources and teaching and learning materials (use the options on the left of the page to select).

  • Edexcel offer IGCSE Maths A and B. Specification A is the one most commonly taken in the UK. (Specification B is mainly taken overseas and far fewer good grades are awarded).  
  • 9-1 grading, for exams from summer 2018.  
  • This mapping document [Dead link, trying to find a new link] shows the changes from the old syllabus 4MA0 to the new 4MA1. The main difference is a move from A*-G grading to 9-1 grading; a small increase in the number and algebra assessment objective weighting; more questions on problem-solving and mathematical reasoning and a revised formulae sheet.  
  • Available as foundation tier (papers 1F and 2F; grades 1-5) and higher tier (papers 1H and 2H; grades 4-9). Questions on the higher tier will assume knowledge from the foundation tier subject content.  
  • 2 x 2-hour papers. All are calculator papers.    

Resources for Edexcel IGCSE Maths

See the maths resources page for a list of Edexcel IGCSE student textbooks, revision books and general resources.

Some teacher resources are available on the Edexcel IGCSE maths specification page.

Cambridge (CAIE) International GCSE Maths

CIE IGCSE Maths 0580 and 0980

  • 0580 and 0980 are identical syllabuses and exams, but the grading for 0580 is A*-G and 0980 is 9-1. Some exam centres will only allow candidates to register for 0980. 
  • Available as core ( grades 1-5) or extended (grades 4-9) tiers. Core is paper 1 (1 hour) and 3 (2 hours);extended is paper 2 (1 hour 30 mins) and 4 ( 2 hours 30 mins) 
  • All papers allow a calculator  

Resources for Cambridge (CAIE) IGCSE Maths

(Currently updating)

Textbooks for CAIE IGCSE maths

You will only need one of these. It is worth checking whether answers to all the questions are provided in the book or are needed to be sourced elsewhere. For further advice and recommendations ask on the HE exams and alternatives group You can usually get an idea of layout by using the 'look inside' feature on Amazon.

Workbooks and Revision books for CAIE IGCSE maths

General Maths Resources

We have a page full of maths resources - useful, mostly free, maths sites, YouTube channels, and some paid-for resources like online courses. Please see Maths Resources .   

What next after GCSE maths?

Additional Maths / Further Maths / FSMQ - see separate page on Further and Additional Maths, and other ways to make use of the time between GCSE and A-level maths.

Other Maths Activities

UKMT Individual Challenges and mentoring materials. The UKMT material is good because it's fresh and a different approach from standard 'textbook' maths.  See above for links.

The Problem Solver's Handbook, from UKMT

The Art of Problem Solving books, also from UKMT - these would probably be good for the proofs you're after, and it's an international approach so may work well with what your son has already used.

Project Euler - maths problems combined with programming problems - https://projecteuler.net/

"Project Euler is a series of challenging mathematical/computer programming problems that will require more than just mathematical insights to solve. Although mathematics will help you arrive at elegant and efficient methods, the use of a computer and programming skills will be required to solve most problems."

Vedic Maths - DS1 enjoyed learning lots of shortcuts with this approach.  I wouldn't get too carried away with stories of its heritage because that part is probably made up - they are maths tricks, but useful ones and apparently very efficient.  See http://blogannath.blogspot.co.uk/2009/06/introduction-to-vedic-mathematics.html?m=1

The following books were recommended by a maths whizz on the HE-Exams list as being good material for mathsy teens, and the sort of thing which might be good to discuss at interviews:

  • James Gleick's book on chaos
  • Euclid's Elements
  • Principia
  • Ian Stewart's Cabinet of Mathematical Curiosities
  • C J Bradley's Introduction to Number Theory
  • Surely You're Joking Mr Feynman
  • The Man Who Loved Only Numbers
  • The Man Who Knew Infinity (Ramanujan)