General Certificates of Secondary Education (GCSEs) are undertaken in Year 10 and Year 11 over five terms with exams taking place in the third term of Year 11. Most schools will ask that you take Maths, English and Science, and most will ask that you undertake approximately 10 GCSEs, although they may ask you to do more. There are over 50 subjects to choose from and teachers will provide information about exactly which GCSEs are offered at your school and how they might fit together in your timetable.

Close up of a hand filling in a multiple choice answer paper

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English, maths, science, ICT (England only), PE, citizenship, sex education, careers education, religious education, work-related learning, and Welsh (Wales only) are all included in the national curriculum, so must be studied by all students between the ages of 14 and 16. However, you only have to take a GCSE in English, Maths and Science. Every school also has to offer subjects in the arts, design and technology, the humanities, and modern foreign languages, however what they specifically offer will depend on the individual school.

When deciding what subjects to study, you should think about what subjects you are best at, which you enjoy and which might help you in the future. All GCSEs are valued by employers. However, there are eight which are vocational and relate directly to employment: applied art and design, applied business, applied ICT, applied science, applied engineering, health and social care, leisure and tourism, and manufacturing.

Some subjects can be taken in different ways. For example, Science can be taken as one, two or three GCSEs. Furthermore, some subjects, such as citizenship studies, are available in ‘short courses’ which are half the size of a GCSE.  

If you're unsure about what to take, please see our choosing your GCSEs page. 

GCSEs normally take two years to complete and may involve controlled assessments (coursework). Controlled assessments count towards the final grade, and may include projects, fieldwork, experiments, investigations or artwork. Students also have to sit exams which will take place in the third term of Year 11 (Year 12 in Northern Ireland).

GCSEs are graded from A*-G with A* being the highest and G the lowest. If you don’t obtain the G pass mark, youwill be awarded a U which stands for ‘unclassified’. Some subjects offer a choice of two tiers - foundation and higher. Foundation tier students will be able to obtain grades C-G, while higher tier students will be able to obtain grades A*-D.

If something happens on the day of an exam, such as illness or a death in the family, you may be able to apply for special consideration after their paper is marked. Check with the school about what to do in this situation.

Exam results are published on the third Thursday of August and can either be collected from school or sent to the house. You can request for exams to be re-marked or for the marks to be added up again. You can also request a copy of their exam paper to see how they have been marked.

Alongside GCSEs you may be offered other qualifications such as NVQs and BTECs.

GCSE Changes

From September 2016, new GCSEs in English (language and literature) and maths have been taught in schools in England, culminating in a final exam in the summer of 2017 which will be assessed and graded differently. From September 2016 and 2017 further new GCSEs will be introduced, as the government is overhauling its system and its curriculum. This means that, confusingly, if you are currently in Year 8, 9, or 10, you will be sitting a mixture of old and new GCSE qualifications.

The new GCSE changes include:

  • courses designed in a linear fashion for two years of study, with no modules and no opportunities to take exams throughout the GCSE period. Exams will only be allowed to be taken at the end of the two-year period.
  • grades of 9-1, with 9 being the highest grade possible. This is to allow for greater differentiation between students, make GCSEs equivalent to the standards of exams in top performing countries such as Finland, Canada, the Netherlands and Switzerland, and help distinguish the new GCSE from previous versions. Grade 5 on the new scale will be considered the top grade for a pass -  equivalent to a low B or high C under the present system. A U grade will still be available for those who fail to meet the requirements of a 1.
  • predominantly exam-based assessment with more demanding content. However, if essential skills of a subject can only be examined through other forms of assessment they will still be implemented, for example the speaking component in English language, and practical exams such as art, dance and drama.
  • no single science option after 2016 so all students will have to do at least two GCSEs in science.
  • tiering (the practice of having different exams or assessment for different ability groups) will only be available when one set of assessments cannot assess students across the full ability range in a valid and manageable way, or where there are content requirements specific to the higher tier only.

Specific changes to GCSE maths include new topics, such as ratio and proportion, and the expectation to learn mathematical formulas by heart. The syllabus will feature a third more content and will require pupils to answer “real world problems”, including financial maths. Due to this increase in content, schools have been encouraged to provide at least one extra maths lesson a week to accommodate the changes.

Specific changes to GCSE English include 20% of marks for written exams to be allocated to accurate spelling, punctuation and grammar. Coursework has been cut, and there is more emphasis on end-of-year exams. English literature will no longer be compulsory, and will include an unseen text and the study at least one Shakespeare play, a Victorian novel and modern British fiction or drama since 1914. Poetry is also set to become a bigger part of the GCSE syllabus from 2015, with pupils required to study at least 15 poems by at least five different poets. Spoken language skills will be assessed and reported separately with students receiving a separate result for this which they can indicate in their UCAS application.

For more information, see How are GCSEs changing?


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