General Certificate of Secondary Education

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The General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE) is an academic qualification awarded in a specified subject, generally taken in a number of subjects by students aged 14-16 in secondary education in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. It was introduced in 1986 (with the first examinations taking place in 1988) replacing the former O Level / CSE qualifications. As well as amalgamating the two former examination systems, one of the main changes was to allow students to complete Course Work during their two years of study, which was marked by their teachers and contributed to their final examination grade.

The qualification is equivalent to a Level 1 or Level 2 (grade depending) Key Skills Qualification. (In Scotland, the equivalent is the Standard Grade.) Some students may decide to take one or more GCSEs before or after they sit the others, and people may apply for GCSEs at any point either internally through an institution or externally.

The educational systems of other British territories, such as Gibraltar,1 Nigeria and South Africa, also offer the qualification, as supplied by the same examination boards. The international version of the GCSE is the IGCSE, which can be taken anywhere in the world, and which includes additional options relating to coursework and the language the qualification is pursued in. Countries such as Zimbabwe still use the former qualifications- O Level

Prior education to GCSE level is generally required of students wishing to pursue A-level courses or the International Baccalaureate. GCSE exams were introduced as the compulsory school-leavers' examinations in the late 1980s (the first exams being taken in the summer of 1988) by the Conservative Party government, replacing the Certificate of Secondary Education (CSE) and GCE Ordinary Level (O-Level) examinations. In September 2012, Michael Gove as Secretary of State for Education, announced plans to scrap GCSE exams for core subjects in England and to introduce a replacement qualification in 2015 called the English Baccalaureate Certificate.2 In February 2013 Gove subsequently announced the Certificate part would not go ahead, and that GCSEs would remain.3 In June 2013, Gove further announced that GCSEs would be replaced by "Intermediate levels" (now abbreviated to "I-levels").


In secondary schools, GCSE courses are taken in a variety of subjects, which are usually decided by the students themselves in Year 9 (age 13-14), however, increasingly more students from schools in England are deciding in Year 8 to study their chosen subjects in Year 9 raising the question as to whether the exams are becoming easier to pass. Typically though, study of chosen subjects begins at the start of Year 10 (age 14-15), although some subjects start earlier, for example Maths, English and Science, mainly because these courses are too long to be taught within the traditional 2 years; final examinations are then taken at the end of Year 11 (age 15-16). In Northern Ireland, these age groups are designated as one Year higher, so that Year 9 elsewhere is equivalent to Year 10 in Northern Ireland, and so forth. The number of subjects a student studies at GCSE level can vary. Usually somewhere between eight and ten subjects are studied, though it is not uncommon for more, or fewer, subjects to be studied.

In secondary schools, GCSEs are compulsory in the core subjects and are more common qualification taken by 14–16-year-old students. The only requirement is that in state schools English, mathematics, science and physical education are studied during Key Stage 4 (the GCSE years of school). In England and Northern Ireland, students following the national curriculum (compulsory in state schools) must also study some form of information communication technology (ICT), and citizenship. In Wales, Welsh (as a first or second language) must also be studied. These subjects do not have to be taught for any examination (or even be discrete lessons), though it is normal for at least English, mathematics and science to be studied to GCSE level.

For the reasons above, virtually all students take GCSEs in English, mathematics and science. In addition, many schools also require that students take English literature, at least one modern foreign language, at least one design and technology subject, religious education (often a short, or 'half', course), and ICT (though increasingly this is the DiDA or OCR National, rather than the GCSE). Students can then fill the remainder of their timetable (normally totalling ten different subjects) with their own choice of subjects (see list below). Short Course GCSEs (worth half a regular GCSE) or other qualifications, such as BTECs, can also be taken.


At the end of the two-year GCSE course, candidates receive a grade for each subject that they have sat. The pass grades, from highest to lowest, are: A* (pronounced 'A-star'), A, B, C, D, E, F and G. Grade U (ungraded/unclassified) is issued when students have not achieved anything worthy of credit; the subject is then not included on their final certificate.

GCSEs are part of the National Qualifications Framework. A GCSE at grades D–G is a Level 1 qualification, while a GCSE at grades A*–C is a Level 2 qualification. As one would expect, GCSEs at A*-C (Level 2) are much more desirable and insisted on by many employers and educational institutions. Level 1 qualifications are required to advance to Level 2 qualifications. Likewise, Level 2 qualifications are required to advance to Level 3 qualifications.

Students can also receive an X grade which signifies that they have only completed part of the course or key elements such as coursework are missing and so an appropriate grade cannot be given. A Q (query) grade means that the clarification is needed by the exam board, whom the school should contact. Both X and Q are normally temporary grades and replaced with a regular grade (A*-G or U) when the situation has been resolved.

X grades are also very rarely used by some exam boards to indicate that the examiner found offending material, usually hate speech, within one of the exam papers that a student took. In some cases this may cause the student to lose all marks for that particular paper, and occasionally for the entire course. X grades are most common in subjects where ethical issues are raised and/or there is a question which requires the student to express their personal opinion on a scientific/religious view. Notable areas where this can occur are Biology and Religious Education/Studies.


In many subjects, there are two different 'tiers' of examination offered:

  • Higher, where students can achieve grades A*–D(E), or a U
  • Foundation, where they can achieve grades C–G, or a U4

If a candidate fails to obtain a Grade G on the Foundation tier or a Grade D on the Higher tier they will fail the course and receive a U. Candidates who narrowly miss a Grade D on the Higher tier, however, are awarded a Grade E. In modular subjects, students may mix and match tiers between units. In non-tiered subjects, such as History, the examination paper allows candidates to achieve any grade. Coursework and controlled assessment also always allows candidates to achieve any grade.

In 2006, GCSE Mathematics changed from a 3-tier system — Foundation grades (D–G), Intermediate (grades C–E) and Higher (grades A*–C) — to the standard 2-tier system described above.

UK GCSE Grades Awarded (%'age)5
A* A (A*+A) B C D E F G U A*-C Candidates
1988 8.4 12.8 20.7 19.3 16.6 12.5 6.3 3.4 41.9 5230047
1989 9.9 13.8 21.9 19 15.8 11.2 5.6 2.9 45.6 5132998
1990 10.8 14.4 22.5 18.7 15.3 10.6 5.2 2.5 47.7 5016547
1991 11.4 14.7 22.4 18.6 15 10.5 5.3 2.2 48.5 4947593
1992 12.3 15.3 22.9 18.6 14.7 9.9 4.7 1.6 50.5 5028554
1993 12.5 15.9 23.1 18.6 14.2 9.3 4.4 1.8 51.5 4968634
1994 2.8 10.2 (13) 18 21.8 18.7 13.7 9.3 4.1 1.5 52.8 5029599
1995 3.2 9.9 (13.1) 17.8 22.1 18.6 14 9 3.9 1.5 53 5431625
1996 3.4 10.3 (13.7) 18 22.3 18.6 13.4 8.7 3.8 1.5 54 5475872
1997 3.6 10.5 (14.1) 18.1 22.3 18.7 13.3 8.5 3.6 1.5 54.4 5415176
1998 4.1 10.6 (14.7) 16.5 23.6 18.6 13.2 7.6 3.5 2.3 54.8 5353095
1999 4.4 10.8 (15.2) 16.9 23.7 18.7 12.7 7.5 3.3 2 55.8 5374751
2000 4.6 11.2 (15.8) 17 23.8 18.4 12.5 7.2 3.2 2.1 56.6 5481920
2001 4.9 11.2(16.1) 16.9 24.1 18.3 12.1 7.1 3.3 2.1 57.1 5632936
2002 5 11.4 (16.4) 17.4 24.1 18.1 12 6.7 3.2 2.1 57.9 5662382
2003 5.1 11.6 (16.7) 17.3 24.1 17.7 11.7 6.8 3.3 2.4 58.1 5733487
2004 5.6 11.8 (17.4) 17.3 24.5 17.3 11.3 6.6 3.2 2.4 59.2 5875373
2005 5.9 12.5 (18.4) 18 24.8 17.3 10.5 6 2.8 2.2 61.2 5736505
2006 6.3 12.8 (19.1) 18.3 25 17.3 10.2 5.6 2.6 1.9 62.4 5752152
2007 6.4 13.1 (19.5) 18.6 25.2 17.2 9.8 5.3 2.4 2 63.3 5827319
2008 6.8 13.9 (20.7) 19.8 25.2 16.6 9.1 4.7 2.3 1.6 65.7 5669077
2009 7.1 14.5 (21.6) 19.9 25.6 16.5 8.5 4.4 2.1 1.4 67.1 5469260
2010 7.5 15.1 (22.6) 20.6 25.9 15.9 7.8 4 1.9 1.3 69.1 5374490
2011 7.8 15.4 (23.2) 21.7 24.9 15.1 7.8 4.1 2 1.2 69.8 5151970
2012 7.3 15.1 (22.4) 21.7 25.3 15.9 7.7 4.1 1.9 1 69.4 5225288
2013 6.8 14.5 (21.3) 21.5 25.3 16.6 8.0 4.1 2.0 1.2 68.1 5445324

Further education

Receiving five or more A*–C grades, including English and Maths, is often a requirement for taking A-levels in the school sixth form, at a sixth form college or at a further education college after leaving secondary school. Where the choice of A level is a subject taken at GCSE level, it is frequently required that the student has received a GCSE C grade minimum. Most universities typically require a C or better in English and Mathematics, regardless of a student's performance in their A-level or Foundation Degree course after leaving school. Many students who fail to get a C in English and Mathematics will retake their GCSEs in those subjects at a later date, in order to take further education (A-levels) at a sixth form college. As well as choosing to take A-Levels after GCSEs, students can also choose to do BTEC courses. Some students do them alongside A-Levels and they count for 1 or 2 A-Levels. However some students may go to a college to study only what is known as a BTEC Level 3 Extended Diploma in one certain subject. This course is two years long and students can earn the necessary 3 A-Levels required to gain a university place. The reason some students decide to take a BTEC is because it allows them to focus solely on an area they are certain to go into in the future, and also because it allows those who do not do well in tests, to earn qualifications that are coursework-only-based, and therefore reflect a fairer overview of the students' ability.

Leading universities often take into account performance at GCSE level, sometimes expecting applicants to have a high proportion of A and A* grades.6789

Controlled assessment

In some subjects, one or more controlled assessment assignments may also be completed. Controlled assessment can contribute to anything from 10–60% of a pupil's final grade, with more practical subjects, such as design and technology (60%), art (60%), ICT (60%), music (60%) and English (60%) often having a heavier coursework element. The rest of a pupil's grade (normally the majority) is determined by their performance in examinations. These exams may either be terminal exams at the end of Year 11, a series of modular examinations or taken throughout the course, or a combination of the two. Pupils can sometimes resit modular examinations later in the course and attempt to improve their grade.

In terms of stress, the upside of controlled assessment is that it can help to ease the stress of examination because students who undertake their coursework with skill and diligence have already achieved around 20% of the marks accounting for their final grade, however the downside is that this means students have a greater workload to complete, sometimes having to produce a large amount of work for a minimal part of the overall grade. For example, in English a student may have to complete 4 pieces of coursework, each over a thousand words long, which individually only account for 5% of the grade. However, this varies between exam boards.

Controlled assessment was usually completed outside of lessons, however concerns about cheating have meant that more and more is now being completed in the classroom, under supervision. For many courses starting in September 2009, including those in Economics, Science and History, a requirement will be that controlled assessment is completed in a controlled environment within schools. Design and Technology subjects also switch to the new, more controlled, environment, with time limits and restrictions on the variety of projects allowed.10 However, despite hopes that controlled assessment would eliminate the possibility of cheating, it still goes on. There are many cases of teachers allowing students to complete the work at home after the teacher has corrected and marked it, which does not comply with the "controlled" element of this assessment. An Ofqual investigation shows that most teachers are deeply dissatisfied with controlled assessment.citation needed

Examination boards

There are now five examination boards offering GCSEs:

While all boards are regulated by the Office of the Regulators of Qualifications (Ofqual) – a non-departmental public body sponsored by the Department for Education – the boards are self-sufficient organisations. Traditionally there were a larger number of regional exam boards but changes in legislation allowed schools to use any board before a series of mergers reduced the number to five. The Joint Council for Qualifications (JCQ) acts as a single voice for the awarding bodies and assists them to create common standards, regulations and guidance.


Students receive the results of their GCSEs in the fourth week of August (the week after A Level results). CCEA publish their results on the Tuesday and the other examination boards publish theirs on the Thursday. Normally, students have to go to their school to collect their results, although Edexcel allow for the option of an online results service.11

English Baccalaureate

In late 2010, the Government introduced a new performance indicator called the English Baccalaureate, which measures the percentage of students in a school who achieve grades A*-C in English, mathematics, two sciences, a foreign language and history or geography.12

In September 2012, new qualifications known as the English Baccalaureate Certificate were formally announced to replace GCSEs, citing dumbing down as one of the reasons.131415 Chris Keates of union NASUWT criticised the announcement as being "entirely driven by political ideology".16

In February 2013, Education Secretary Michael Gove had planned to bring in the English Baccalaureate Certificate from Autumn 2015, but faced criticism from MPs and teaching unions, which soon lead to the abandonment of the English Baccalaureate.3


There have been comments that the GCSE system is a dumbing down from the old GCE O-level system (as it took the focus away from the theoretical side of many subjects, and taught students about real-world implications and issues relating to ICT and citizenship)by whom?. In addition, GCSE grades have been rising for many years, which critics attribute to grade inflation. By comparing students' scores in the YELLIS ability test with their GCSE results between 1996 and 2006, Robert Coe found a general increase in results which ranges from 0.2 (Science) to 0.8 (Maths) of a GCSE grade.17 Only slightly more than half of students sitting GCSE exams achieve the 5 A* to C grades required for most forms of academic further education.18

One of the important differences between O-levels (and the earlier grading of A-levels) and the later GCSE qualifications was supposed to be a move from norm-referenced marking to criterion-referenced marking.19 On a norm-referenced grading system, fixed percentages of candidates achieve each grade. With criterion-referenced grades, in theory, all candidates who achieve the criteria can achieve the grade. A comparison of a clearly-norm-referenced assessment, such as the NFER Cognitive Ability Test or CAT, with GCSE grading seems to show an unexpected correlation, which challenges the idea that the GCSE is a properly criterion-based assessment.20

There have been calls from several MPs for GCSEs to be scrapped in favour of a national Diplomaby whom?. The Department for Education does not look likely to do this at any time in the near futureweasel words. Sir Mike Tomlinson, former head of Ofsted, also stated that GCSEs ought to be scrapped and replaced with Diplomas in August 2009.21

In recent years, concerns about standards has led some public schools to go as far as to remove GCSEs from their curriculum, and to take their pupils straightnot in citation given to A-level or the International Baccalaureate.22 Other public schools, such as the Manchester Grammar School, are replacing the GCSEs with IGCSEs in which there is an option to do no coursework.23 The new Science syllabus has led to many public schools switching to the IGCSE Double Award syllabus.24

In 2012, there were a number of complaints that English GCSEs were marked unfairly, following a decision to change the grade boundaries. 2012 was also the first year in the 24-year history of the exams in which the proportion of all GCSEs awarded an A*-C grade fell.25

History and format

GCSEs were introduced for teaching in September 1986, with the first examinations taking place in 1988, replacing both the GCE O-level (General Certificate of Education, Ordinary Level) and the CSE (Certificate of Secondary Education) qualifications, which had suffered problems due to the two-tier nature of the system. Grade C of the GCSE was set at equivalent to O-Level Grade C and CSE Grade 1. Thus the final students to sit the former O-Level/CSE examinations were those of May–June 1987 and the subsequent retakes in September 1987. Students were taught the new GCSE subjects from September 1986, for the first GCSE examinations in 1988.

The table below compares the grading under the O Level / CSE system and GCSE system, at the time of its introduction in 1988:

GCSE Grade O Level Grade CSE Grade
Pre-1975 (numeric) Pre-1975 (alphabetic) 1975 onwards
A / A*(see below) 1 A A 1
2 B
B 3 C B
C 5 D C
6 E
D 7 F D 2
E 8 G E 3
F U (ungraded) 4
G 9 H 5
U (unclassified) U (ungraded)
  • Blue background – certificate and qualification awarded.
  • Red background – no certificate or qualification awarded.

The format of the GCSE has remained basically the same since its inception, though many minor changes have been made.

The A* grade was introduced to distinguish the very top end of achievement in 1994,26 although the threshold for achieving an A* has varied considerably over time, coming down as low as 47% in a 2005 AQA Business Studies GCSE.27

Initially, most exams had two tiers: Higher, offering grades A-E (A*-E from 2002), and Basic, offering Grades F-G. In 1998, the Higher tier was modified to cover grades A*-D, while the Basic tier was renamed Foundation and now covered grades C-G.28 In 2004, an 'allowed' Grade E was introduced to the Higher tier for candidates narrowly missing a Grade D.

For many years, Maths was an exception, having three tiers: Higher (grades A*–C), Intermediate (grades B–E) and Basic/Foundation (grades D–G). Maths moved to the standard two tier system in 2006 (for the first examination in 2007 or 2008 depending on whether the modular or linear course was taken).

Introduced in 2000 was the Vocational GCSE (VGCSE), which encouraged students to take the work-related route and included courses such as Engineering and Manufacture, Applied Business, ICT, and Leisure and Tourism. From September 2004, the word 'Vocational' was dropped and a Vocational GCSE is now known simply as a GCSE.

Science GCSEs were overhauled in 2006 (for first examination in 2008). The most popular course, Double Award Science GCSE, where students received two identical grades for a course with twice the content as the Single Award Science GCSE, was terminated. Students studying for two Science GCSEs now study the single Science GCSE (known as core science) and then one of two complementary GCSEs: Additional Science GCSE (which has a more academic focus) or Applied Science GCSE (which has a more vocational focus). Candidates now receive separate grades for each of their Science GCSEs.

GCSE examinations in state education are taken officially in the summer, though many schools take mocks beforehand. GCSE examination results are received on a specified date in the summer, and due to this, the examinations are always taken near the end of the academic year (unless in private education). GCSEs are externally marked examinations, taken between April and July, unless a pupil has specific reasons to be entitled to extension of time.

There were further changes to the English GCSEs from 2010. Instead of the current system where (virtually) all students take English and the vast majority also take English Literature, students will take English Language and English Literature together or just English on its own, which will effectively be a hybrid of the other two GCSEs.29

The youngest student to gain a GCSE is home-educated Arran Fernandez, who took GCSE Mathematics in 2001 at the age of five, gaining grade D, the highest available at Foundation Tier at that time.30 In 2003 he became the youngest ever student to gain an A* grade, also for Mathematics.31

Special educational needs

For students with learning difficulties, an injury/repetitive strain injury (RSI) or a disability, help is offered in these forms:

  • Extra time (the amount depends on the severity of the learning difficulty, such as dyslexia, disability, injury or learning in English as a second language provided that the student has been studying in the UK for not more than 2 years)
  • Amanuensis (somebody types or handwrites as the student dictates; this is normally used when the student cannot write due to an injury or disability)
  • A word processor (without any spell checking tools) can be used by students who have trouble writing legibly or who are unable to write quickly enough to complete the exam
  • A different format exam paper (large print, Braille, printed on coloured paper, etc.)
  • A 'reader' (a teacher/exam invigilator can read out the words written on the exam, but they cannot explain their meaning)
  • A different room (sometimes due to a disability a student can be placed in a room by themselves or with selected others; this also happens when an amanuensis is used, so as not to disturb the other candidates. All exam rooms are covered by separate dedicated invigilators.)

All of the above must be approved by the exam board concerned. There are other forms of help available, but these are the most commonly used.

Students working below GCSE level may take a different qualification altogether in one or more subjects. The Entry Level Certificate, in particular, is designed for this purpose. There are also other qualifications which can be taken such as BTECs, which are specially designed for students with learning difficulties and other special needs.


Many of the subjects in this list are not offered by every school.

Core/Compulsory subjects

  • Science (students can take a number of different 'routes'):
    • One GCSE: Science (which includes elements of biology, chemistry, and physics) Often referred to as Core Science.
    • Two GCSEs: Science and Additional Science (a more academic course)
    • Two GCSEs: Science and Additional Applied Science (a more vocational course)
    • Two GCSEs: Double Award Applied Science (a very vocational course) (also known as Dual Award or Double Science)
    • Up to three GCSEs: Biology, Chemistry and Physics as separate GCSEs (known as a Triple Award or Triple Science)

Several other science based GCSEs are available to pupils in many schools. These include GCSE Astronomy and Geology.

  • Religious Education (short or full course) and ICT are often compulsory, depending on the school.


Modern languages

Classical languages



People and society-related subjects

Expressive arts


See also

  • GCE Advanced Level; commonly referred to as "A-Levels", these are the next set of exams that some students take


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  3. ^ a b Major U-turn as Coalition abandons plan to scrap GCSEs, The Daily Telegraph, 7 February 2013
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  6. ^ "Entry requirements for Accounting and Finance | University of Bath". Retrieved 2013-06-17. 
  7. ^ "Bristol University | Department of Computer Science | Undergraduate courses". 2013-02-26. Retrieved 2013-06-17. 
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  14. ^ EBaccs to replace GCSE exam, says Michael Gove, The Independent, 17 September 2012
  15. ^ Michael Gove and Nick Clegg: A new exam will get the best out of all our children, Evening Standard, 17 September 2012
  16. ^ Teaching union chief says exam changes are 'entirely driven by political ideology', ITV News, 17 September 2012
  17. ^ Robert Coe, Changes in Standards at GCSE and A-Level: Evidence from ALIS and YELLIS, CEM, Durham 2007 p.4 accessed 29 July 2011
  18. ^ UK Parliament publication
  19. ^ House of Commons Education and Skills Third Report 2003 retrieved 27 July 2011
  20. ^ Matthew Baxter, Monitoring Progress and Target Setting in the Secondary School: Finding Appropriate Methods of Data Collection and Analysis retrieved 27 July 2011
  21. ^ Paton, Graeme (27 August 2009). "GCSEs 'should be scrapped' exams in favour of diplomas". The Daily Telegraph (London). 
  22. ^ Schools Dropping GCSEs
  23. ^ BBC News "Give Schools freedom of choice"
  24. ^ The Independent: "Majority of private schools 'ditched at least one GCSE'"
  25. ^ BBC News "Anger over 'harsh' English GCSE grades"
  26. ^ BBC News Education
  27. ^ Anastasia de Waal, School Improvement – or the ‘Equivalent, Civitas, 2009, p.3 quoted from Warwick Mansell, Education by Numbers: The Tyranny of Testing, Politico, London, 2007. Website accessed 29 July 2011
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  29. ^ QCA Report cover
  30. ^ "GCSE success stories". BBC. 2001-08-23. Retrieved 2008-09-12. 
  31. ^ Smithers, Rebecca (2003-08-22). "Bright young things set record". London: The Guardian. Retrieved 2008-09-12. 


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