Examination boards in the United Kingdom

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Examination boards in the United Kingdom (also called awarding bodies or "awarding organisations") are the examination boards responsible for setting and awarding secondary education level qualifications, such as GCSEs, Standard Grades, A Levels, Highers and vocational qualifications, to students in the United Kingdom.

Grades that can be awarded are the following:

  • (GCSE & GCE): A*, A, B, C, D, E, F, G, U.
  • (BTEC): Distinction*, Distinction, Merit, Pass, Fail.

All grades indicate a pass with the exception of a U grade at GCSE and Fail at BTEC. Most courses at GCSE come in Higher (A*-D) and Lower (C-G) tiers. Until the mid-1990s, academic exam boards and vocational accreditors were run very much as separate organisations. In more recent times, this distinction has been removed, with all the term 'awarding bodies' now being used. This article focuses on the contemporary and historical awarding bodies that set academic exams in state schools. In everyday terminology, these organisations are still referred to as 'exam boards'.

Broadly speaking, the UK has always had two separate school systems: one for England, Wales and Northern Ireland; and one for Scotland. As a result, two separate sets of exam boards have been developed.

England, Wales and Northern Ireland[edit]

Unusually, England, Wales and Northern Ireland have several exam boards, with schools and colleges able to freely choose between them on a subject-by-subject basis. Currently, there are seven exam boards available to state schools:

  • AQA (Assessment and Qualifications Alliance)
  • CIE (University of Cambridge International Examinations)
  • CCEA (Council for the Curriculum, Examinations & Assessment)
  • Edexcel (Pearson Edexcel)
  • ICAAE (International Curriculum and Assessment Agency Examinations)
  • OCR (Oxford, Cambridge and RSA Examinations)
  • WJEC (Welsh Joint Education Committee)

CIE is another exception: it is traditionally an international exam board, but now offers the Cambridge Pre-U and Cambridge International Certificate to state schools.

Schools and colleges have a completely free choice between the boards, depending on the qualification offered. Most schools use a mixture of boards for their GCSE qualifications, with a similar situation existing at A Level. (It is worth noting that a school using, say, OCR for GCSE History is perfectly free to pick a different board for A Level History.)


Early beginnings[edit]

Exam boards have been around as long as there have been qualifications offered by schools. As universities had experience of offering qualifications, such as degrees, it was natural that they created the first exam boards. Indeed, the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge each had their own exam board and a joint board they ran together. The qualifications offered were generally of the boards' own creation. Schools and colleges (with some exceptions, detailed below) were free to pick which board they wanted to use, though most went for a local board.

The early boards established included:

The Central Welsh Board differed from most exam boards, as it was not controlled by a university and only offered examinations to schools and colleges in Wales. Intermediate schools in Wales had to use the Board, though other schools and colleges were free to choose.[4]

School Certificate and Higher School Certificate[edit]

In 1918, the first national qualifications for England, Wales and Northern Ireland were introduced: the School Certificate, taken at 16, and the Higher School Certificate, taken at 18.[6] The existing exam boards started offering the new qualifications, normally in place of their own qualifications.

In 1930, the University of London Extension Board renamed itself University of London University Entrance and School Examinations Council and School Examinations Department in 1951.[5]

The Welsh Joint Education Committee (WJEC) was founded by the Welsh local authorities in 1948. It took over many of the Central Welsh Board's responsibilities, including running Wales's exam system.[7]

GCE (O Level and A Level)[edit]

In 1951, the General Certificate of Education (GCE) was introduced. It was split into two stages: Ordinary Level (O Level, taken at 16) and Advanced Level (A Level, taken at 18). These qualifications replaced the School Certificate and the Higher School Certificate respectively.

The University of London University Entrance and School Examinations Council and School Examinations Department was renamed the University of London School Examinations Board in 1984.[5]


To create a more egalitarian system, the O Levels were replaced by the General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE) in 1986.[8] As O Levels had used different exam boards (except in Wales and Northern Ireland), new 'examining groups' were created (see creation of current exam boards).

Though the boards were regional, schools were entirely free to pick which board they did their GCSE qualifications with and could mix and match between subjects.[9]

When the Certificate of Achievement (now the Entry Level Certificate, a qualification below GCSE level) was introduced, the GCSE examining groups were responsible for administering the qualification.

Creation of the current boards[edit]

It was not long before the GCE (A Level) boards and GCSE examining groups began to formally merge or enter into even closer working relationships. This made sense, as it allowed merged boards to offer both GCSE and A Level qualifications and the boards were working together to offer the GCSE qualifications anyway. Many boards also took the opportunity to merge with vocational exam boards, as vocational qualifications became more common in schools. The government encouraged this, as they wanted to simplify the system by having fewer exam boards.[10]


AEB/SEG and the vocational City & Guilds formed the Assessment and Qualifications Alliance (AQA) in 1997,[11] with the AEB/SEG and NEAB formally merging into AQA in 2000 (City & Guilds chose to remain independent, but closely cooperates with AQA). AQA is run as an educational charity.[12]

OCR and CIE[edit]

When the University of Oxford Delegacy of Local Examinations (UODLE) was abolished in 1995, its A Level functions were transferred to UCLES (University of Cambridge Local Examinations Syndicate). In the same year, UCLES also took over the Oxford and Cambridge Schools Examination Board (OCSEB). UCLES then merged all its A Level boards together to form the Oxford and Cambridge Examinations and Assessment Council (OCEAC).[2] This left UCLES offering A Levels under the OCSEB name, GCSEs under the MEG name and some vocational qualifications under the UODLE name.[13] This situation continued until 1998, when UCLES took over the vocational Royal Society of Arts Examinations Board. Following the merger, it chose to use the name Oxford, Cambridge and RSA Examinations (OCR) for all its UK qualifications.[10] OCR is now the only major exam board owned by a university and is still run by the University of Cambridge, through its Cambridge Assessment division.

Cambridge Assessment also controls CIE, a predominately international exam board that started offering some qualifications to English, Welsh and Northern Irish state schools.


In 1996, London Examinations merged with the vocational BTEC to form the Edexcel Foundation. Though it originally ran as an educational charity like AQA, the Foundation was taken over by Pearson(and renamed simply Edexcel), making it the only British exam board to be run by a profit-making company.[14]

CCEA and ICAAE[edit]

The Northern Ireland Schools Examination Council became the Northern Ireland School Examinations and Assessment Council before being replaced by the Council for the Curriculum, Examinations and Assessment (CCEA) in 1994. It is a non-departmental public body.

ICAAE was founded in 1989.[15] It specialises in a small number of business and ICT courses. It began offering GCSEs in 1997, in partnership with CCEA. Since 2009, it has offered exams independently of CCEA.[16] ICAAE is a division of ICAA.


Unlike the other boards, WJEC did not experience any major organisational changes and is still owned by the Welsh local authorities, though it operates independently.


There is just one exam board in Scotland, the SQA (Scottish Qualifications Authority), which offers all Scotland's qualifications.


Previously, academic qualifications were awarded by the Scottish Examination Board, while vocational qualifications were awarded by the Scottish Vocational Education Council (SCOTVEC).

Examination boards working together[edit]

The UK's examination boards sometimes work together. For example, they sometimes offer qualifications jointly or share training materials for common parts of specifications.

The JCQ (Joint Council for Qualifications) is a common voice for UK exam boards. The JCQ is made up of AQA, CCEA, City & Guilds, Edexcel, OCR, SQA and WJEC. Among its roles, it devises standard rules for exams and publishes statistics.