GCSE v IB MYP: Which course should I choose?

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July 5th, 2023

In this article, Samuel, an experienced teacher, explores the differences and unique features of the IB Middle Years Programme and GCSEs. Many students around the world have the opportunity to study either, so if you require more information about the relative merits of each course, read on!

Choosing a secondary school often requires a great deal of consideration and research, but sometimes this can lead to more questions than answers.

One topic that frequently causes confusion is choice of qualification. You may have seen schools which offer GCSE, MYP and IGCSE and wondered which would be best for you. In this article we’ll take a look at each of these options and some of the key considerations for deciding between them. In particular, as a maths and science specialist my experience is with the differences in the maths and science courses, but lots of the points discussed are much more general and apply to all GCSE or MYP courses. 

What are GCSE, IGCSE and MYP?

Each of these are qualifications obtained during secondary education. Usually students begin studying for these around 14 years old and obtain their qualification around 16 after some form of assessment (although there are exceptions). 

GCSE stands for “General Certificate of Secondary Education”, with the “I” in the IGCSE representing the international version of this certificate. GCSE qualifications were first offered in the UK and are based on the national curriculum developed by the UK Department of Education. GCSE exams are assessed by professional independent external exam boards and IGCSE qualifications were developed to provide the same rigorous approach to exams and independent assessment that the GCSE provides. Although originally designed for students outside of the UK, many schools in the UK now offer IGCSE courses. 

The MYP stands for “Middle Years Programme” a programme developed by the International Baccalaureate (IB) and is intended to be a more holistic scheme of study, designed originally to be taught alongside local qualifications (e.g. GCSE). However there  is now also an option for schools offering the MYP to offer an externally assessed eAssessment which allows students to earn a formal certificate. Some schools may exclusively teach the MYP curriculum (with or without eAssessment) while some may choose to teach MYP in addition to other qualifications, such as the IGCSE. 

Each of these qualifications provides a stepping stone to further study, usually either A-levels or the IB and each of them are academically rigorous and well respected qualifications. 


For GCSE and IGCSE, students are assessed primarily through external terminal exams conducted at the end of their period of study. These exams are both produced and marked by external examination boards, with schools able to select an exam board that they feel best suits them, on a subject by subject basis. This choice of exam boards can be a complex decision for schools and it is often worthwhile discussing the reasoning behind this with a school for insight into their approach. 

MYP assessment includes both external and internal components, but overall is less exam focused. External assessment may include exams or other forms of external evaluation set and marked by the IB, while internal assessment involves teacher-led assessment tasks such as student personal projects that are externally moderated by the IB. For schools offering the eAssessment students are required to either sit electronic exams (as is the case for science, maths and literature) or to produce an electronic portfolio (for arts, design and PE). 

Each system has various mechanisms in place to ensure that assessment is as fair as possible and each school has to follow a strict set of guidelines when assessing students, designed to ensure impartiality. Each system uses a numeric grade, with higher numbers corresponding to better grades. Dates for assessments and exams (both internal and external) and potential for resits can vary so this is best discussed with individual schools.

Approach and Philosophy

The MYP was designed more recently than the GCSE and has a distinct philosophy which encourages students to enquire and emphasises practical connections and human plurality. MYP (and IB courses in general) tend to approach subjects in a more interdisciplinary manner, highlighting links between subjects and asking students to apply content in various contexts. Due to the latitude in approach intrinsic to the IB different schools and teachers may approach the content in different ways, which can be both a positive and a negative.

GCSE courses tend to focus more on traditional ‘academics’ building up subject knowledge in a much more structured way, with schools teaching a tried and tested curriculum, which is well defined and understood. GCSE courses are more modular with each subject being largely self contained and independent of one another, with many optional GCSE subjects for schools to choose from (around 60 in total). 

Subject Content and Difficulty

All three provide a challenging level of content to students and cover a wide range of material suitable to prepare students for future studies. Subject content in the MYP is designed to follow specific ‘themes’ to allow students to relate topics to one another (although in my personal opinion these can be nebulous at times), as well as the usual division of subjects into specific topics which is also present in GCSE. Often, some amount of the content covered in MYP is in part dependent on the school and teacher, but GCSE content is much more standardised throughout, with schools and teachers deciding instead how to best approach the content. 

Subject content can vary widely between GCSE and MYP, but both reliably provide all necessary and fundamental content, with sensible and well reasoned additional material. There is also some variation between content covered at IGCSE and GCSE and even differences in content covered by different GCSE exam boards, however these differences are more often than not relatively minor.

There seems to be a common belief that MYP and IGCSE are more difficult than GCSE, with schools often choosing courses they feel align well with their style or ethos or because of the perception of difficulty of these courses, however with the most recent 9-1 style GCSE courses these perceived differences are largely academic.

What do universities think?

Various universities, including those in the prestigious Russell group, have stated that they do not hold any preference when it comes to secondary qualifications. Universities are generally more interested in overall performance, subject specific performance, entry exams and interviews (if applicable). 

Which is better, MYP or GCSE?

This is a question for which there is not a definitive answer. There are numerous factors to consider and the answer to this question is best considered in conjunction with various other questions. Academically each of these courses is rigorous and well thought of, providing students with a deep and comprehensive education, which is suitable for further studies at both A level and IB. 

It may be worth considering how you best learn and what your plans for the future may be. Students who enjoy enquiry based learning and being more independent may enjoy MYP more, however students who like having a known structure and fixed exam style may enjoy the predictability offered by GCSE and terminal exams. 

Whichever qualification you take, you will receive excellent educational opportunities, so engage with these and with your teachers and tutors as much as possible to really get the most out of them. Learning can be a truly fulfilling exercise, with a huge amount to be gained and we wish you all the best on your educational journey. 

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