If you’re Home Educating your kids, at some point the question of exams inevitably comes up. Probably even more than the perennial ‘how do they socialise‘ question, I get the “But how DO home educated kids do GCSEs“?
(article first published on LittleStuff in 2019 - updated in 2023)
The simple answer is – you do it the same way as school kids… but at more cost. Because exams aren’t free unless you’re in school. and yes, this came as HUGE shock to me. I figured all kids got free exams under the age of 18. But no. You opt out of school? You pay for the exams.
Disclaimer – ICS Learn have provided my son with the two GCSE courses in return for sharing his progress with you. All course decisions, opinions, reviews and photography are my own.
In the school system GCSEs are a two-year course, usually with the exam at the end of Year 11.
But there’s no law about this – and most Home Ed families will stagger the exams, taking one or two a year from around the age of 13. Most GCSE courses only require 120 hours of actual study time – tricky to fit into a busy school timetable, but relatively simple when you’re free to set your own hours. Two hours a day, five days a week, and in three months you’ve covered the course.
But if you’re the one figuring out how home educated kids do GCSEs, there’s a lot you need to learn about the exam process itself; in school there’s always an expert to deal with it all for you. You need to understand the different exam boards, their course requirements, where their exam centres are, and which will be best for you. Many GCSEs have a coursework element, which simply isn’t practical for a Home Educated child. So most Home Ed families opt for IGCSEs – the same qualification, but purely exam-based. They were created for ex-pat students who wish to maintain the UK curriculum, but they’re available to anyone, and in fact many private schools use IGCSE courses.
GCSE Examination Boards are not all the same
So your first step is to find an exam centre that will take you (some state schools will accept external candidates – that’s how we’ve done it – and even more private schools do, though their fees tend to be much higher for the exam itself). If all else fails, there are specific exam centres scattered around the country which are solely for external candidates, offering a range of exam boards and who will gladly take you.
Not every examination board will cover the same subject, or have the same requirements. For English Literature, for example, they will study entirely different books and poetry eras.
If this is all sounding a bit overwhelming, fear not. Many others have gone before you, and there’s a fabulous community of experienced parents wiling to share their knowledge! Personally I’ve found the best place for advice is a Facebook Group – Home Education UK Exams & Alternatives. Lots of very knowledgeable and super-helpful people to assist with any query, plus loads of simple ‘how to’ tips and guides on the basics of getting started and organised.
So; it’s always best to work backwards. Once you have an exam centre, and know the boards they offer, you can choose the appropriate course to study.
At this point every Home Ed family take a different method of studying (that flexibility is exactly why they’ve opted for Home Education, obviously). Some will form local study groups with other local Home Ed families at the same stage. Others will simply purchase study books (make sure they’re for the right exam board!) and revision guides and work through it on their own, prepping with past exam papers.
But most acknowledge at this stage they need professional guidance, and enrol on some sort of online tutor-led course.
GCSE Distance Learning Tutor courses
Obviously there are a lot of providers for distance learning GCSE courses – I can’t comment on them all as I haven’t tried them all. Do your research, and find the ones that seem to work best for you as they all use different methods and systems. We personally have used three, all with good success, and right now have settled on ICS Learn as the best solution for us. The course is all online, but with a real tutor to provide support, assessment and guidance.
Using this online learning method my oldest son achieved the grades he needed, and moved seamlessly on to A levels at a local 6th form college (his choice, you can do A Levels at home too, of course). Our second son took his own path (we’ll come back to him another time), but son No.3 is currently on his own fast track for home study GCSEs, using the ICS learn system and whizzing through his Maths & English.
How do home educated kids do GCSEs? By Working Hard!
Ultimately it’s the same as for a school-educated teenager. The subject is there to be studied, and the grade they get will depend on the work they put in. As well as any tutor-led resources you end up purchasing there are an enormous amount of free resources online. Your teenager will soon be showing you why YouTube is their friend as they throw up brilliantly-explained maths channels which helped when they were stuck, or an engaging overview of Steinbeck’s ‘Of Mice And Men’ .
For parents there’s a lot more legwork, and a need to understand how the UK exam system works, but it’s actually pretty straightforward. Do the work, get your exam details organised, and show up in plenty of time!