GCE Ordinary Level (United Kingdom)

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This article is about the secondary school leaving exam once taken in the United Kingdom. For the O Level qualification worldwide, see GCE Ordinary Level.
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The General Certificate of Education (GCE) O-level, also called the Ordinary Level or O level, is a subject-based qualification conferred as part of the General Certificate of Education (GCE). It was introduced as part of British educational reform by the government of the United Kingdom alongside the more in-depth and academically rigorous A-level (Advanced Level) in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. England, Wales and Northern Ireland replaced O-levels with GCSE and IGCSE exams. The Scottish equivalent was the O-grade (replaced, following a separate process, by the Standard Grade). The O-level qualification is still awarded by Cambridge International Examinations in select locations, including secondary schools in the country of Mauritius, instead of or alongside the IGCSE qualifications. Currently, CIE (abbrev. Cambridge International Examinations) offers curricula for approximately 40 different subjects.[1]


O-levels were predominantly exam-based; this had advantages for students in part-time or evening education. Some commentators criticised this mainly exam-based approach as offering only partial proof of the student's overall ability in comparison with other methods (e.g., coursework-based assessment). There was no summative "school certificate": each subject was a separate O-level in its own right.

Madsen Pirie found that the O-level was advantageous to boys because of exam-based learning.[2] Pirie also observes that the GCSE focus on coursework has disadvantaged boys, reversing the gender gap in attainment, to the degree where in all subjects girls outperform boys, including traditionally male subjects such as sciences and physical education.


In the past, passing grades for the O-level were 1 to 6 or A, B, C, D and E. In the former case grades 7 to 9, and in the latter case U (Unclassified), were classified as a fail. Most certificates did not include the grade that was awarded; this was issued separately on a results slip. Subjects with results graded 7 to 9 or U were not listed in the certificate. Over time, all boards adopted the same system, with grades A to C equivalent to the previous pass grades.[3][4] At the same time, a change was made from numerical (1-6) grades to alphabetic grades (A-E).

Later developments[edit]

The O-level qualifications in England, Wales and Northern Ireland were replaced by a new system, the General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE). However the O-level is still used in many Commonwealth countries, such as Bangladesh, Mauritius and Singapore. Some British schools also reverted to exams based on the O-levels.[5] The Hong Kong Certificate of Education Examination was also benchmarked against the O-levels for comparable subjects. But it has switched to benchmark against the IGCSE. The School Certificate of Mauritius continues to use the O-level exams.

O-levels continue to thrive as well respected international qualifications for students in other countries, who use them for preparation for advanced study in their own country and/or access higher education overseas.[citation needed] Approximately 12 million candidates from more than 200 countries register annually for O-level examinations across the world. Institutions that offer O-levels include Cambridge International Examinations (CIE).[6]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ http://www.cie.org.uk/programmes-and-qualifications/cambridge-secondary-2/cambridge-o-level/
  2. ^ Pirie, Madsen. "How exams are fixed in favour of girls", The Spectator, 20 January 2001.
  3. ^ http://www.liverpool.gov.uk/Images/tcm21-94640.pdf
  4. ^ In particular see page 88 of the definitive UCAS document at http://www.dur.ac.uk/resources/ug.admissions/ucasinfo/ukquals07.pdf
  5. ^ Clark, Laura. "Private schools dump GCSEs in favour of old-style O Levels", Daily Mail, 9 August 2006.
  6. ^ Cambridge O Levels described at CIE's website