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What are GCSEs?

GCSE stands for General Certificate of Secondary Education. It’s the part of the National Curriculum taught to pupils aged 14 to 16 in years 10 and 11. It also includes exams, the results of which have a significant bearing on a child’s future career.

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GCSEs - those four letters that can make teenagers all over the country feel a bit anxious! But let's break it down: What exactly are GCSEs? In a nutshell, GCSEs are the exams students take at the end of Key Stage 4. Our GCSE Subjects page provides access to all our revision quizzes in this category.

For a quick overview of GCSEs, watch the video below where Alison explains the grading system step by step.

What is Key Stage 4 (KS4)?

The education journey is divided into four key stages, with Key Stage 4 (KS4) being the last one. It's the stage where students in Years 10 and 11, aged 14 to 16, study. In KS4, students primarily focus on GCSE courses, and the all-important GCSE exams take place at the end of Year 11.

What does GCSE stand for?

GCSE stands for General Certificate of Secondary Education. It's the modern-day equivalent of the old O Levels and CSEs that were once familiar to many of us. GCSEs were introduced in 1986, and the first GCSE exams were held in 1988.


Which subjects are mandatory in GCSEs?

While there is some flexibility in choosing subjects for GCSEs, three core subjects are compulsory: English, maths, and science. Additionally, students need to study citizenship and physical education (PE), although there are no exams for the latter two. All other GCSE subjects are optional.

For an in-depth look at the National Curriculum for GCSEs and secondary school in general, check out our How Does the National Curriculum Affect Secondary Schools? article for valuable insights.

What are 'entitlement areas'?

In addition to the core subjects, schools must provide access to at least one course in each of the four 'entitlement areas.' They should also make it possible for students to take one course from all four if they wish. These entitlement areas include:

  • The arts (art and design, music, dance, drama, and media arts)
  • Design and technology (electronics, food technology, graphics, resistant materials, systems and control, textiles, and product design)
  • The humanities (geography and history)
  • Modern foreign languages (e.g., French, German, Spanish)

The availability of optional subjects for KS4 varies between schools. Some subjects may be limited, while others, like certain languages (e.g., German), may not be offered at all.

How many GCSEs do students need to take?

Each school determines the number of GCSEs its students can take, which may range from as few as 7 to as many as 12. In addition to the mandatory English, maths, and science subjects, students make their GCSE selections in Year 9. It's essential for them to choose subjects that align with their future career goals and interests.

Every choice they make can impact their future, so encourage your child to select subjects that not only interest them but also have relevance to their chosen career path.

English, maths, and science are compulsory subjects at the GCSE level.

How are GCSEs graded?

In the past, GCSE students received grades ranging from A* (the highest) to G (the lowest), with scores below G marked as U for 'ungraded.' However, things have changed. The new grading system now uses numbers from 9 (the highest) to 1 (the lowest). Here's how the new grades correspond to the old ones:

  • Grade 9 – Even higher than the old A*
  • Grade 8 – Below an A* but above an A
  • Grade 7 – Slightly below an A but very close
  • Grade 6 – Slightly better than a B
  • Grade 5 – Below a B but above a C, also known as a 'strong pass'
  • Grade 4 – Equivalent to a C, also called a 'standard pass'
  • Grade 3 – Below a D but above an E
  • Grade 2 – Between an E and an F
  • Grade 1 – Between an F and a G
  • Ungraded – The lowest possible mark, and just like the old system, a U represents a fail

Why was the GCSE grading system changed?

The new GCSE grading system was introduced to differentiate among the highest-achieving students. Along with changes in grading, some of the questions have become more challenging. The goal is to identify the brightest pupils. In 2017, only 3% of students achieved the coveted Grade 9.


How significant are GCSEs?

Children in GCSE art class

GCSEs are the most crucial exams students take before entering college or university. The results have a profound impact on students' futures. Many college courses require a minimum of 5 GCSEs at grade 4 or higher (equivalent to a C or better in the old grading system), and some demand five grade 6s (equivalent to an A or A*).

Some college courses only accept students with grade 6 or above (A or A*) in the relevant GCSE subject, and universities often require a minimum of grade 4 (C or higher) in English, maths, and at least one science subject before admitting students to any course.

How well students perform in their GCSEs is the primary indicator of potential for colleges. With further education and future careers in mind, GCSEs may be the most important exams of all.

For helpful tips on exam preparation, read our article on The Best GCSE Exam Revision.

How long is a GCSE course?

GCSE exams follow a two-year course of study, during which students are taught all the material they need for their exams. Additionally, in many subjects, students' coursework is assessed as part of their GCSE results.

Which GCSE subjects include coursework in the final grade?

In practical subjects like art, design and technology, or music, 60% of a student's GCSE grade is based on their coursework. The English Literature result also includes 40% of the final mark based on work done in class or at home.

GCSEs are important exams and vital for those wishing to go into further education.

For a comprehensive understanding of the secondary school curriculum, read our article on What is the Secondary School Curriculum?

If you have any questions about education, you can find answers in our Knowledge Bank, where we have numerous articles covering various aspects of education and schooling. You'll also find valuable advice for parents to help raise happy and safe children.


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