General Certificate of Secondary Education

The General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE) is the name of 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. (In Scotland, the equivalent is the Standard Grade). Some students may take one or more GCSEs younger. The education systems of other British territories, such as Gibraltar, and the former British dominion of South Africa, also use the qualifications, 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, for example relating to coursework and the language used. When GCSEs are taken by students in secondary education, they can often be combined with other qualifications, such as BTECs, the DIDA, or diplomas.

Education to GCSE level is often required of students who study for A-levels, themselves a common requirement for entry to university.


GCSE courses are taken in a variety of subjects, which are usually decided by the students themselves in Year 9 (age 13–14, called Year 10 in Northern Ireland). Study of chosen subjects begins at the start of Year 10 (age 14–15, called Year 11 in Northern Ireland), and final examinations are then taken at the end of Year 11 (age 15–16, called Year 12 in Northern Ireland).

GCSEs are not compulsory, but they are by far the most common qualification taken by 14–16-year-old students. The only requirement is that in state schools English, mathematics, science, religious education and physical education are studied during Key Stage 4 (the GCSE years of school). In England, 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 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. The pass grades, from highest to lowest, are:

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

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.

Those who fail a course are given a U (unclassified) and the subject is not included on their certificates. 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 mark cannot be given.

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

  • higher, where students can achieve grades A*–D
  • 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).

In non-tiered subjects, the examination paper allows candidates to achieve any grade. Coursework also always allows candidates to achieve any grade. In 2006, GCSE Mathematics changed from a 3-tier system (foundation D–G, intermediate B–E, and higher A*–C) into the standard 2-tier system (foundation C–G and higher A*–D).

Further education

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. 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 (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 20–100% 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.

Some subjects, such as science, can be split up into several different subjects: it is possible to be examined on science as a single or double GCSE, or with biology, chemistry, and physics separately (where three GCSEs are awarded, one for each science).

Coursework 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.

Examination boards

There are now five examination boards offering GCSEs:

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 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 whereby results are posted online.


There is controversy over the discussion 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). Only slightly more than half of students sitting GCSE exams achieve the 5 A* to C grades required for further education.

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

History and format

GCSEs were introduced for teaching in September 1986, and replaced both the GCE O-level (General Certificate of Education, Ordinary Level) and the GCE 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. 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.

The table below shows what each GCSE grade is equivalent to:

GCSE Grade O Level Grade CSE Grade
Earlier Later
A* 1 A
A 2
B 3 B
C 5 C 1
D 7 D 2
E 8 E 3
F 9 U (ungraded) 4
G 5
U (unclassified) U (ungraded)

  • Blue background – certificate and qualification awarded.
  • Red background – no certificate and qualification awarded.

The format of the GCSE has remained basically the 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 later renamed to foundation. During the 1990s, all subjects except Mathematics moved to the current two tier system and Mathematics eventually followed suit in 2006 (for the first examination in 2007 or 2008 depending on whether the modular or linear course was taken).

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 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.

From September 2008, there will be a major overhaul of the current GCSE system. Most coursework will be removed, including that in Mathematics, Economics, Science and History. The coursework system is in the process of being re-structured to stop plagiarism by making it a requirement that coursework be completed in a controlled environment within schools.

There will be 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..

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.. In 2003 he became the youngest ever student to gain an A* grade, also for Mathematics.

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 (such as Dyslexia, disability or injury; up to 25% extra time can be granted by the centre, over that permission must be sought from the awarding body)
  • 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 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, 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.


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

"Core" Subjects

  • English
  • Mathematics
  • Science (students can take a number of different 'routes'):
    • One GCSE: Science (which includes elements of biology, chemistry, and physics)
    • Two GCSEs: Science and Additional Science (a more academic course)
    • Two GCSEs: Science and GCSE Applied Science (a more vocational course)
    • Up to three GCSEs: Biology, Chemistry and Physics as separate GCSEs
  • Welsh or Welsh Second Language (in schools in Wales)
  • Religious Studies are also compulsory for some students in Northern Ireland.





People and society-related subjects

Expressive arts


See also



External links

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