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General Certificate of Secondary Education

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

(Redirected from GCSE)

The General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE) is the name of a set of British qualifications, taken by secondary school students, at age of 14-16 in England, Wales, and Northern Ireland (in Scotland, the equivalent is the Standard Grade). The education systems of other British territories, such as Gibraltar and ex-British (influenced) territory South Africa, also use the qualifications as supplied by the same examination boards.


GCSE courses are taken in a variety of subjects, which are usually decided by the students themselves between the ages of 13 and 14 (called Year 9 in England and Wales and Year 10 in Northern Ireland). Study of chosen subjects begins at age 14 (Year 10/Year 11), and final examinations are then taken at age 16 (Year 11/Year 12).

Contrary to popular belief, GCSEs are not compulsory, but they are by far the most common qualification taken by 14-16-year-old students. The only legal requirement is that English, Mathematics, Science, Religious Education and Physical Education are studied during Key Stage 4 (the GCSE years of school); in England, some form of ICT and Citizenship must also be studied and, in Wales, Welsh 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 candidates 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, rather than the GCSE). Students can then fill the remainder of their timetable (normally totalling nine 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, each student receives a grade for each subject. These grades, from best to worst, are:

  • A* (pronounced 'A-star')
  • A
  • B
  • C
  • D
  • E
  • F
  • G

Those who fail a course are given a U (ungraded) and that subject is not included on their certificates. Receiving five or more A*-C grades 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. 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 (and, increasingly, ICT) will retake their GCSEs in those subjects at a later date.

In most subjects, one or more coursework assignments may also be completed. Coursework can contribute to anything from 20-60% of a student's final grade, with more practical subjects, such as Design and Technology and Music, often having a heavier coursework element. The rest of a student'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 taken throughout the course, or a combination of the two. Students can sometimes resit modular examinations later in the course and attempt to improve their grade.

In many subjects, there are two different 'tiers' of examination offered: Higher, where students can achieve grades A*-D, and Foundation, where they can achieve grades C-G. If a candidate fails to obtain a G on the Foundation tier or a D on the Higher tier they will fail the course and receive a U (though there is a safety net allowing those who narrowly miss a D on the Higher tier to receive an E). Candidates are entered for the tier felt best suited for them by themselves and their teachers. In non-tiered subjects, the examination paper allows candidates to achieve any grade. Coursework also always allows candidates to achieve any grade.

Some subjects, such as Science, can be split up into several different subjects: it is possible to be examined on Science as a whole, with one, or more often two, GCSEs (typically known as Double Award Science), or with Biology, Chemistry, and Physics separately (where three GCSEs are awarded, one for each science - also known as Triple Award, or separate, Science).

There are now five examination boards offering GCSEs: AQA, OCR, Edexcel, the WJEC and the CCEA; while all boards are regulated by the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA) - a non-departmental public body sponsored by the Department for Education and Skills (DfES) - 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 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). The 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.


GCSEs were introduced for teaching in September 1986, and replaced both the O-level GCE (Ordinary level General Certificate of Education) and the CSE (Certificate of Secondary Education) qualifications, which 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. The table below shows what each GCSE grade is equivalent to (note that the O Level grades are the ones used at the end of the system):[citation needed]

The basic format of the GCSE has been same since its inception, though many minor changes have been made. Initially, there were three tiers for examinations: Higher (grades A*-C), Intermediate (grades B-E) and Basic (grades D-G). Basic was soon renamed Foundation. During the 1990s, all subjects except Mathematics moved to the current two tier system (see above) and Mathematics eventually followed suit in 2006 (for the first examination in 2008).

In 1994, the A* grade was introduced to distinguish the very top end of achievement.

Introduced in 2000 was the Vocational GCSE, which encouraged students to take the work-related route and included courses such as engineering, 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. This is to show that the vocational side is 'on par' with the traditional academic side.

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

Special educational needs

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

  • Extra-time (the amount depends on the severity of the learning difficulty/disability/injury/RSI)
  • An amanuensis (somebody, (normally a teacher) types or handwrites as the student dictates, this is normally used when the student cannot write due to an injury, RSI, or disability.
  • 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, this also happens when an amanuensis is used, so as not to disturb the other candidates)

There are other forms of help available, but these are the most commonly used.


Some commentators feel 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), joking that it stands for "General Certificate for Sitting an Exam".

In recent years, concern about standards has led some public schools (private schools) to go as far as to remove GCSEs from their curricula and to take their pupils straight to A-level or the International Baccalaureate. Other private schools are replacing the GCSEs with IGCSEs in which there is an option to do no coursework.

Proponents of the GCSE system contend that the exam is just as hard as the old GCE O-level system it replaced and that the recently rising numbers of top grades is due to better teaching and pupils working ever harder. The GCSE's adherents further assert that it enables the ability of the student to be assessed over the duration of the course, through coursework. Opponents of the GCSE argue that coursework offers too much scope for plagiarism and undue help from parents.

The new Science syllabus has led to many independent schools switching to the IGCSE Double Award syllabus.

List of GCSE subjects

Note: Many of the subjects in this list are not offered by every school. Also note that subjects that are extremely rare, such as minor languages or subjects taught by only one or two schools, are not listed below.

Core subjects

  • English
    • Many schools also insist on students taking English Literature
  • Mathematics
  • Science (students can take a number of different 'routes'):
    • Science as a single subject (which includes elements of Biology, Chemistry, and Physics)
    • Science as a single subject and Additional Science (a more academic course)
    • Science as a single subject and Applied Science (a more vocational course)
    • Science as separate subjects (studying one or more of Biology, Chemistry and Physics)
  • Welsh or Welsh Second Language (in schools in Wales)

Expressive Arts

  • Expressive Arts
  • Art
  • Art: Graphics
  • Art: Fine Art
  • Drama
  • Music
  • Design
  • Graphic Products
  • Applied Art and Design (Double Award)
  • Dance
  • Fashion Design
  • Information and Communication Technology (ICT)
  • Moving Arts
  • Photography
  • Graphics


  • Humanities
  • History
  • History: Modern International
  • History: Social
  • Geography
  • Geology
  • Religious studies (RE)
  • Philosophy and Ethics
  • Sikh Studies
  • Islamic Studies
  • Jewish Studies
  • Pakistan Studies (a combination of the history and geography of Pakistan)
  • Economics
  • Sculpture
  • Systems and Control
  • Engineering (Double Award)
  • Manufacturing (Double Award)


  • Additional Maths (also known as Pure Maths)
  • Social Science
  • Science (Double Award)
  • Media Studies
  • English Literature
  • Rural Science
  • Statistics
  • Biology
  • Chemistry
  • Physics

People and Society Related Subjects

  • Child Development
  • Citizenship
  • Sociology
  • Health and Social Care (Double Award)
  • Psychology
  • Law
  • Physical Education
  • Leisure and Tourism
  • Leisure and Tourism (Double Award)
  • Youth Award Scheme & CoPE
  • Classical Civilization

Uncommon subjects

  • Archeology
  • Astronomy (only offered by Edexcel)
  • Ceramics
  • Classical Greek
  • Nautical Studies
  • Outdoor Pursuits
  • Biblical Hebrew
  • Modern Greek
  • Modern Hebrew


  • French
  • German
  • Spanish
  • Urdu
  • Turkish
  • Pakistani
  • Bengali
  • Arabic
  • Persian
  • Welsh
  • Russian
  • Irish
  • Latin
  • Japanese
  • Gujarati
  • Dutch
  • Chinese (Mandarin or Cantonese)
  • Punjabi

Applied and Vocational Courses

  • Business (Applied)
  • Business & ICT, OCR National Level 1 Certificate
  • Health & Social (Applied)
  • ICT, OCR Level 2 National award
  • Leisure & Tourism (Applied)
  • Media, BTEC First Diploma
  • Work-Related Learning Pathways and Out School Providers
  • Business Applied (Double Award)
  • Business Studies
  • Business and Communication Systems
  • Business Studies and Economics


  • Design and Technology (in most schools, students must choose one of the following subjects)
  • Food Technology
  • Resistant Materials
  • Textiles
  • Electronics
  • Woodworks
  • Product Design
  • Product Design: Textiles
  • Product Design: Resistant Materials
  • Product Design: Electronics with Resistant Materials
  • CAD / CAM

See also

Wikibooks has a book on the topic of
  • A Levels
  • Standard Grade

External links

  • GCSE Grade Analyser
  • Directgov: GCSEs
  • Directgov: GCSEs: applied and short course
  • The Guardian, 25 August 2005, "It really is that bad" - GCSE standards
  • The Guardian, 3 September 2005, "Top independent school to ditch GCSE science"


Although there are many different revision websites covering different exam board syllabuses and subjects at various skill levels, below are some of the more popular websites used by schools for student revision and coursework preparation.

  • BBC GCSE Bitesize
  • Target Language
  • Channel 4 Learning
  • - A Levels & GCSE Q&A service & Nationwide Private Tutor Directory
  • [1] This is a website for help with all English Revison,GCSE and A Level.


Examination boards

  • Assessment and Qualifications Alliance (AQA)
  • Council for the Curriculum, Examinations and Assessment (CCEA)
  • Edexcel Limited
  • Oxford Cambridge and RSA Examinations (OCR)
  • Welsh Joint Education Committee (WJEC)
  • Cambridge International Examinations

UK government education bodies

  • Department for Education and Skills (DfES)
  • Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA)
  • National Assessment Agency (NAA)
  • Joint Council For Qualifications (JCQ)
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