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4 steps to taking GCSEs or IGCSEs as a home educator

I’ve been having lots of conversations with friends lately about how their home educated children can take GCSEs. There’s a lot to get your head round, and for the full details, check out the Home Educator’s GCSE Survival Guide. However when you break it down, here’s the basics of what you need to do to help your homeschooled teenager get their GCSEs.

1. Choose what subjects they are going to study

Home educated children don’t need to do the same 8-10 GCSEs that they would do in school – you can choose based on what each individual student is likely to need for their future choices. Maths, English Language, and sometimes a Science, are required for most options, but beyond that you have fairly free reign depending on what your child actually wants to do.

There are lots of different subjects that are available (like Astronomy, Classical Civilisations, or Environmental Management), and some that are difficult to do outside of a school environment – mainly those with a large practical element, like Art, Music or PE. Some subjects are easier to find exam centres for if you use the International GCSE (IGCSE) version which can have fewer practical requirements – this is usually true for Science and English Language. Take a look at my Exam Options for Home Educators table to get an idea of what’s on offer, and how easy or difficult each subject is to access as a home educator. Some subjects are only available from a particular board, which may mean not all exam centres support it – so consider this along with step 2.

The best way to choose is to think about your child – what doors do they need to keep open for them in the future? What are the requirements for what they might want to do? What are they interested in? Pick from those.

Also, you don’t have to decide all at once. Not all GCSEs need to be taken in one go at 16. You can start earlier, or run later – there’s no age limit (although funding for next level courses gets trickier from age 18 onwards). So you can pick one or two that they’re most interested in or you know will be needed and get those under your belt; and then choose more from there. Or you can change choices up as you go if it just isn’t working out. It’s up to you and your child.

2. Think about exam centres

There are two parts to taking GCSEs – learning the content, and taking the exams. Usually for home educators these are done separately. You can get started learning the content whenever and however you want, but to actually take the exam you will need to find an exam centre that allows private candidates (anyone who is not a pupil at the school) and supports the board that you’re using. An exam centre may be a school, a tutorial centre, or a private exam centre. Each exam centre is only registered with particular boards, so for example they may be registered with AQA and Edexcel, but not CAIE (Cambridge) or OCR. In that case you will only be able to sit exams from Edexcel or AQA at that centre. This may affect the subjects you choose (see Step 1).

Exam centres don’t have to take private candidates, and they will charge you in order to sit the exams – in most cases there is no help from the Local Authority with this for home educated children. Costs and availability of centres varies, depending on where you are, and it can change from year to year too. It is very common to have to travel for an hour or two to find an exam centre that supports home educators.

Some centres are listed on the HE Exams Wiki, but the best way to find out is to ask other local home educators with older children.

You will usually need to book an exam centre about 6-9 months before the actual exams – so around October for an exam the following Summer. In most cases you’ll want to start studying before then, so you may need to get started before being completely sure of an exam centre. If you choose a generally supported board, are prepared to travel and have a couple of candidate exam centres in mind, you should be fine.

3. Learn the content

Each GCSE or IGCSE has a specification, or syllabus, that describes what you need to learn for that qualification. The exam is designed to sample the skills and knowledge from the specification to see how well the student knows it – so the exam may include questions based on anything in the specification.

Each exam board publishes the specification for each subject they offer on their website. You can download it and look at the description of what you need to learn. They will usually have other resources available too, like sample exam papers, or an example scheme of work that gives lesson breakdowns to cover the specification over two years. This isn’t designed to actually teach the content, just describe what needs to be learnt. If the subject your child wants to study is available from several boards, then you can choose which one to go for by looking at the style of the exam papers and the resources available (both from the board and through textbooks and courses) – and which are supported by exam centres available to you.

To actually learn it, there are several options.

  • DIY, using textbooks (most subjects have one or more main textbooks available via Amazon or other book sellers), and other free or cheap selfstudy resources like YouTube, BBC Bitesize, or Seneca learning. Some home educated teenagers will manage this themselves, others will need a lot of input from a parent – either one is normal and totally fine! This is the most flexible and low-cost way of studying.
  • Using a purchased course. Many providers offer courses designed to teach everything for a particular GCSE or IGCSE (this will be targeted to a particular board, as well as subject) . This may be in a self-paced way through recorded or written lessons and assignments (which may be auto marked, self marked, or sometimes sent off to a tutor for marking and feedback), or through live online lessons (usually weekly), over one or two years. The format and cost vary between courses.
  • Using a tutor for individual or group lessons. This may be more individual, but usually also more costly, and depends on what is available near you.

Choose what suits your child and your family best. What works wonderfully for someone else may not be right for you, and that’s fine. Most families will choose to self-study for some subjects and get in help for others they’re less confident with.

There’s no set time frame for learning a course. Schools do it over two or three years, running lots of subjects at a time. Some families choose to do a similar thing, and some courses are designed for a 2-year timeframe. Others focus on just one or two subjects and work over just a few months. It will depend on what works best for your child (how they like to study and how familiar they are with the subject already). Whatever you do, make sure you leave a good chunk of time for revision and exam practice before the exam date.

4. Book and take the exam

About 6-9 months before the exam date, book in with an exam centre. (You may still be able to book closer to the time, but the cost goes up considerably and you risk exam centres being full.) They will send you through the timetable for the exams (these are also published on the exam board website). On the appropriate days, your student shows up, takes the exam in a room with an invigilator, and they’re done. A few months later (in August for summer exams), you will receive your results from the exam centre, and some time after that the certificate.

That’s it… how you take GCSE exams as a home educated student in a nutshell.

Of course each step has lots of details and questions, so if you’re ready to dive in, check out the Home Educator’s GCSE Survival Guide – it will tell you all you need to know to be confident about getting your child the qualifications they need.

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