General Certificate of Secondary Education

General Certificate of Secondary Education

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 and is equivalent to a Level 2 (A*- C) and Level 1 (D- G) in Key Skills. (In Scotland, the equivalent is the Standard Grade.) Some students may decide to take one or more GCSEs before or afterwards; people may apply for GCSEs at any point either internally through an institution or externally. The education systems of other British territories, such as Gibraltar,[1] 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 the Business And Technology Education Council (BTEC), the Diploma in Digital Applications (DiDA), or diplomas.

Education to GCSE level is often required of students who study for the International Baccalaureate or to GCE Advanced Level (A-level). 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 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). Typically, 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, religious education 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.

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.

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 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.


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 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 B–E) and Higher (grades A*–C) — to the standard 2-tier system — Foundation (grades C–G) and Higher (grades A*–D).

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. There is now currently no more intermediate level, only higher and foundation.

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%) and music (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 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 Mathematics, 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.[2]

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, however results will be available on a Tuesday from all examination boards from 2010 onwards. 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.[3]

English Baccalaureate

In late 2010 the government announced a new English Baccalaureate certificate would be awarded to students who achieved grades A*-C in English, Mathematics, two Sciences, a Foreign Language and History or Geography.[4] The reason for its introduction was to combat the perceived fall in the number of students studying foreign languages and science.[5] School league tables now take into account the percentage of students awarded this certificate.[6]


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). 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.[7] 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.[8]

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.[9] 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 CATs test with GCSE grading seems to show an unexpected correlation which challenges the idea that the GCSE is a properly criterion based assessment.[10]

There have been calls from several MPs for GCSEs to be scrapped in favour of a national Diploma[by whom?]. The Department for Education does not look likely to do this at any time in the near future[weasel words]. Sir Mike Tomlinson, former head of Ofsted, also stated that GCSEs ought to be scrapped and replaced with Diplomas in August 2009[citation needed].

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 straight[not in citation given] to A-level or the International Baccalaureate.[11] Other public schools, such as Manchester Grammar School are replacing the GCSEs with IGCSEs in which there is an option to do no coursework.[12] The new Science syllabus has led to many public schools switching to the IGCSE Double Award syllabus.[13]

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 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
Pre-1975 (numeric) Pre-1975 (alphabetic) 1975 onwards
A*/A 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[14], 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.[15]

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.[16] In 2004, a '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.[17]

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.[18] In 2003 he became the youngest ever student to gain an A* grade, also for Mathematics.[19]

Special educational needs

For students with learning difficulties, an injury/repetitive strain injury (RSI) 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)
  • 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; this also happens when an amanuensis is used, so as not to disturb the other candidates)

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 at level 1 and above


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

Core/Compulsory subjects

  • Welsh or Welsh Second Language (in all schools in Wales)
    • Many Welsh schools offer Welsh Literature along with the language course
  • Irish in Irish-medium schools in Northern Ireland


  • 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 Additional Applied Science (a more vocational course)
    • Two GCSEs: Double Award Applied Science (a very vocational course)
    • Up to three GCSEs: Biology, Chemistry and Physics as separate GCSEs (known as a Triple Award)

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


Modern foreign languages

Classical languages



People and society-related subjects

Expressive arts


See also

  • GCE Advanced Level in the United Kingdom. Commonly referred to as "A-Levels", these are the next set of exams that students take.


  1. ^ Education Vocabulary – Learn English Vocabulary
  2. ^
  3. ^ "Edexcel's online results service". Edexcel. Retrieved 2008-07-27. 
  4. ^
  5. ^ Blake, Heidi (6 September 2010). "'English Baccalaureate' to combat drop in academic GCSEs". The Daily Telegraph (London). 
  6. ^ Shepherd, Jessica; Vasagar, Jeevan (12 January 2011). "Schools under fire as 1 in 6 pupils achieve 'English bac'". The Guardian (London). 
  7. ^ Robert Coe, Changes in Standards at GCSE and A-Level: Evidence from ALIS and YELLIS, CEM, Durham 2007 p.4 accessed 29th July 2011
  8. ^ UK Parliament publication
  9. ^ House of Commons Education and Skills Third Report 2003 retrieved 27th July 2011
  10. ^ Matthew Baxter, Monitoring Progress and Target Setting in the Secondary School: Finding Appropriate Methods of Data Collection and Analysis retrieved 27th July 2011
  11. ^ Schools Dropping GCSEs
  12. ^ BBC News "Give Schools freedom of choice"
  13. ^ The Independent: "Majority of private schools 'ditched at least one GCSE'"
  14. ^ BBC News Education
  15. ^ 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 29th July 2011
  16. ^"
  17. ^ QCA Report cover
  18. ^ "GCSE success stories". BBC. 2001-08-23. Retrieved 2008-09-12. 
  19. ^ Smithers, Rebecca (2003-08-22). "Bright young things set record". London: The Guardian. Retrieved 2008-09-12. 


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