The General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE) is an academically rigorous, internationally recognised qualification (by Commonwealth countries with education systems similar or identical to the UK education system) awarded in a specified subject, generally taken in a number of subjects by pupils in secondary education in England and Wales over two years (three years in certain schools). It was introduced in the UK in 1988 to replace O-level and CSE examinations.
- Further education
- Controlled assessment
- Examination boards
- History and format
- Special educational needs
- The UK General Certificate of Secondary Education in comparison to the US High School Diploma
- CoreCompulsory subjects
One of the main changes to previous educational qualifications in the United Kingdom was to allow pupils to complete coursework during their two years of study, which was marked by their teachers and contributed to their final examination grade. There has been a move recently from doing coursework and modular examinations for part of the course when pupils would take exams throughout the course to an end of year exam after the two years of study (a 'linear' series). The exams are being revised to make them more difficult such as testing skills from a whole text in English instead of part of a text. Coursework has now been replaced by Controlled Assessments in certain subjects, in which the student completes a number of assessed pieces of work which will ultimately count towards their final examination grade in the specified subject. The Controlled Assessment component of the qualification is usually done under exam-style conditions. After major GCSE reforms, coursework/controlled assessment generally have little to no influence on the final grade as opposed to the past.
The qualification is equivalent to a Level 1 or Level 2 (grade depending) Key Skills Qualification (in Scotland, the equivalent is a National 5). Some pupils may decide to take one or more GCSEs before or after they sit the others, and people may apply to take GCSEs at any point either internally through an institution or externally. A level 1 GCSE covers grades C to G or 1 to 5 (commonly referred to as the foundation tier) whereas a level 2 GCSE covers grades A* to C or 4 to 9 (commonly referred by as the higher tier). Five level 2 GCSEs, including English and Maths, are generally required (as well as an A or B in the specific subject) to continue to the level 3 Advanced GCE level (A-Level) or equivalent level 3 qualifications. From September 2017, grades will be awarded from 9 to 1; a grade 9 being equivalent to an A** and a grade 1 being marginally better than a U (unclassified in the former system). Some schools start GCSEs in year 9. It is also the equivalent to Leaving Certifcate examinations in the Republic of Ireland.
The education systems of current and former British territories, such as Gibraltar, and Nigeria, also offer the qualification, as supplied by the same examination boards. Other former British colonies, such as Singapore and Zimbabwe, continue to use the O-level qualification. The international version of the GCSE is the IGCSE, which can be taken anywhere in the world, and which includes additional options relating to coursework and the language the qualification is pursued in. All subjects completed in the fifth of the European Baccalaureate are generally equivalent to the GCSEs subjects.
Prior education to GCSE level is generally required of pupils wishing to pursue A Level courses or the BTEC Extended Diploma and International Baccalaureate. GCSE exams were introduced as the compulsory school-leavers' examinations by the government of the United Kingdom. GCSE examinations are typically taken at the age of 16 but may be taken at any age.
BTECs can also be taken. These are marked with a different grading system: level one, grades D–G, and level two, pass (C), merit (B), distinction (A), and distinction* (A*) (Pronounced distinction-star) New regulations require that BTECs now include some form of examination, usually done online. The difference between BTECs and GCSEs is that the BTEC course is heavily coursework-based.
At the end of the two-year GCSE course, on the third Thursday of the August of that year, candidates receive a grade for each subject that they have sat. Before the transformation of the GCSE grading system from alphabetical to numeric grades, the pass grades, from highest to lowest, were: A* (pronounced "A-star"), A, B, C, D, E, F and G. Grade U (ungraded/unclassified) signifies that a pupil achieved nothing worthy of credit, therefore no GCSE is awarded to the pupil in that subject. For GCSEs after reformations, the pass grades are: 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2 and 1 but a "good pass" which is generally required, is grade 4 or higher. The U grade stays the same as mentioned above.
Broadly, the same proportion of students will achieve 4 and above as currently achieve C and above, and the same proportion of students will achieve grade 7 and above as currently achieve A or A*.
GCSEs are part of the National Qualifications Framework. A GCSE at grades D to G (or grades 3 to 1) is a Level 1 qualification, while a GCSE at grades A* to C (grades 9 to 4) is a Level 2 qualification. GCSEs at A* to C or 9 to 4 (Level 2) are much more desirable and insisted on by many employers and educational institutions. Level 2 qualifications are usually required to advance to Level 3 qualifications.
Pupils can also receive an X grade which signifies that they have completed only part of the course or that 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* to G or 9 to U) when the situation has been resolved.
X grades are also very rarely used by some exam boards to indicate that the examiner found offending material, usually hate speech, within one of the exam papers that a pupil took. In some cases this may cause the pupil to lose all marks for that particular paper, and occasionally for the entire course. X grades are most common in subjects where ethical issues are raised and/or there is a question which requires the pupil to express his/her personal opinion on a scientific/religious view. Notable areas where this can occur are Biology and Religious Education/Studies.
After GCSE reformations, the grading system changed as follows: instead of grades ranging from A* to U, they now range from 9 to 1 with 9 being the highest grade achievable. This has been introduced because exams are seen as becoming easier each year with a larger number of pupils achieving A*. Changing the grading system also allows the exam boards to increase the difficulty of the exams and therefore have fewer pupils who achieve the highest grade, and get a more accurate representation of the pupils' capabilities. It also gives the exam boards a chance to add extra grades on if the exams start becoming too easy again, which is not possible with the A* to U system. English and Maths exams are being trialled using the new grading system in the 2015/2016 academic year.
In many subjects, there are two different 'Tiers' of examination offered:
If a candidate fails to obtain at least a Grade G on the Foundation Tier or a Grade E on the Higher tier they 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 the old style modular subjects, pupils 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.
The GCSE Mathematics exam syllabus changed from a 3-Tier system—Foundation grades (D to G), Intermediate (grades B to E) and Higher (grades A* to C)—to the standard 2-Tier system described above.
Source: Joint Council for General Qualifications via Brian Stubbs.
Note: In the final year DES statistics for O-Levels are available, and across all subjects, 6.8% of candidates obtained a grade A, and 39.8% and A to C.
UK GCSE classifications
Receiving five or more A*–C grades, including English and Maths, is often a requirement for taking A-levels and BTEC Level 3 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 pupil has received a GCSE C grade minimum. Most universities typically require a C or better in English and Mathematics, regardless of a pupil's performance in their A-level, BTEC or Foundation Degree course after leaving school. Many pupils who fail to get a C in English and Mathematics will retake their GCSEs in those subjects at a later date, in order to take further education (A-levels or BTEC) at a sixth form college. As well as choosing to take A-Levels after GCSEs, pupils can also choose to do BTEC courses. Some pupils do them alongside A-Levels and they count for 1 or 2 A-Levels. However some pupils may go to a college to study only what is known as a BTEC Extended Diploma in one certain subject. This course is two years long and pupils can earn the necessary 3 A-Levels required to gain a university place. The reason some pupils decide to take a BTEC is because it allows them to focus solely on an area they are certain to go into in the future, often in a vocational and practical way.
Leading universities often take into account performance at GCSE level, sometimes expecting applicants to have a high proportion of A and A* grades.
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%), music (60%) and English (40%) often having a heavier coursework element. The rest of a pupil's grade (normally the majority) is determined by their performance in examinations. After the GCSE reformations, there is less emphasis on coursework and qualifications are awarded either mostly or entirely on exams. These exams may either be terminal exams at the end of Year 11, a series of modular examinations or 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.
One positive to Controlled assessment is that it can help to ease the stress of examination because pupils can earn a percentage of their final exam grade earlier in the year. The downside is that this means pupils 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 pupil 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 is 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, including those in Economics, Science and History, a requirement is meanwhile 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. A governmental survey investigation shows that most teachers are deeply dissatisfied with controlled assessment.
The curriculum and awarding of GCSEs has always been performed by a number of independent Examination groups, initially under the supervision of the National Curriculum Council (NCC) and the School Examinations and Assessment Council (SEAC). This oversight has subsequently been passed onto the: School Curriculum and Assessment Authority (SCAA), Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA), National Council for Vocational Qualifications (NCVQ), Awdurdod Cymwysterau, Cwricwlwm ac Asesu Cymru (ACCAC), The Office of Qualifications and Examinations Regulation (Ofqual), and Qualifications Wales (QW).
There are now five UK examination boards offering GCSEs:
While all boards are regulated by the government of the United Kingdom, 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.
Pupils receive the results of their GCSEs in the fourth week of August (the week after A Level results). CCEA publish their results on Tuesday, and the other examination boards publish theirs on Thursday. Normally, pupils have to go to their school to collect their results, although Edexcel allow for the option of an online results service.
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 pupils 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 pupils' scores in the YELLIS ability test with their GCSE results within a period of approximately 20 years, Robert Coe found a general increase in results which ranges from 0.2 (Science) to 0.8 (Maths) of a GCSE grade. Only slightly more than half of pupils sitting GCSE exams achieve the 5 A* to C grades required for most forms of academic further education.
One of the important differences between previous educational qualifications (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. 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 Cognitive Ability Test or CAT, with GCSE grading seems to show an unexpected correlation, which challenges the idea that the GCSE is a properly criterion-based assessment.
The incorporation of GCSE awards into school league tables, and the setting of School level targets, at above national average levels of attainment, has been criticized. At the time of introduction the E grade was intended to be equivalent to the CSE grade 4, and so obtainable by a candidate of average/median ability; Sir Keith Joseph set Schools a target to have 90% of their pupil obtain a minimum of a grade F (which was the ‘average’ grade achieved in the past), the target was eventually achieved nationally years approximately 20 years later. David Blunkett went further and set schools the goal of ensuring 50% of 16-year olds gained 5 GCSEs or equivalent at grade C and above, requiring schools to devise a means for 50% of their pupils to achieve the grades previously only obtained by the top 30%, this was achieved with the help of equivalent and largely vocational qualifications. Labelling Schools failing if they are unable to achieve at least 5 Cs, including English and Maths at GCSE, for 40% of their pupils has also been criticised, as it essentially requires 40% of each intake to achieve the grades only obtained by the top 20% at the time of the qualifications introduction.
In recent years, concerns about standards has led some public schools to go as far as to complement GCSEs with IGCSEs within their curriculum, and to take their pupils straight to A-level or the BTEC. Other public schools, such as the Manchester Grammar School, 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.
In recent years, there were a number of complaints that GCSEs and GCE A-levels were marked unfairly (teachers and pupils also have the option to question exam results by signing up for re-marking procedures should they feel results don't reflect a pupil's ability and expectations or if, after having reviewed a (copy) of the exam script, detect a marking error), following a decision to change the grade boundaries. Recently for the first time in the entire history of the exams the proportion of all GCSEs awarded an A*-C grade fell.
Another incident includes a GCSE Maths exam paper where there were complaints about a question later named in the media as the 'Hannah's sweets' question. Users of Twitter complained that they found the question difficult and/or unintelligible, which was reported on several media websites. However, after the situation calmed down, several teachers, experts, and students delivered the solution to the question via the media.
Moreover, the publication of "soft" subjects (e.g. Critical Thinking, General Studies etc.) and "academic" subjects (e.g. Mathematics, Sciences, Languages) for GCSEs and A-Levels by the universities of Oxford and Cambridge has created an ongoing educational debate where, on the one hand, many educational experts would support this "division of importance" whereas, on the other hand, many head teachers would not only disagree but actually "oppose a move to solely traditional academic GCSE (and A-Level) subjects".
Also, the OECD has expressed its concerns over potential grade inflation of GCSEs and A-Levels in the UK in a published report where the OECD put forward the theory that exam boards may be competing for candidates by lowering standards to secure more entries despite the British government overseeing exam standards.
Gender bias is another area of concern. Department of Education data shows that the relative performance gap between boys and girls widened significantly under GCSEs, compared with O-levels.
In another case, concerning the 2016 GCSE biology exam, students were complaining about the test not including any actual biology questions.
History and format
GCSEs were first introduced in 1988 to establish a national qualification for school-leavers who decided to leave school at 16 and not to pursue further academic studies and qualifications such as A-Levels or university degrees. They were introduced to replace former British educational credentials such as the CSE (Certificate of Secondary Education) and the O-Level qualifications, which had been criticised for failing the bottom 42% of O-level entrants and the brightest CSE entrants. The former failed to achieve a qualification, despite being identified as being in the top 30% academically, and the latter failed to offer a means to differentiate the achievement of the brightest CSE candidates. A single merged qualification was proposed that would resolve these issues by utilising an extended alphabetic grading system, with a GCSE grade C originally intended to be equivalent to the O-Level Grade C and CSE Grade 1, and so achievable by the top ~25% of each cohort. Earlier in the 1980s, a trial "16+" examination was available in some subjects, awarding both an O-level certificate and a CSE certificate. For exams after the major GCSE reformations, for different subjects, qualifications are now graded on a 9-1 scale, with 9 being the highest and 1 being the lowest.
Note: Historically an:
The table below compares the grading under the O Level / CSE system and GCSE system, at the time of the introduction and revision of GCSE grading:
Note that this table does not display correctly on the mobile version of Wikipedia, as it incorrectly shows the match between the reformation grades and the introduction grades
The subjects offered, format, regulation, content and grading of the GCSE examinations has altered considerably over time, with numerous additional subjects now being offered in the: modern languages, ancient languages, vocational, and expressive art arenas, along with a Citizenship course. The largest change has been the change of grading to numerical which encourages A* students to work harder so that a 9 grade shows outstanding distinction in a subject. Another change to the grading has been the introduction of the A* grade to distinguish those candidates who achieve a low A grade from those who achieve a high A grade.
The A* grade was introduced to distinguish the very top end of achievement, although the threshold for achieving an A* has varied considerably over the past, coming down as low as 47% in an AQA Business Studies GCSE paper. This could be a reason why the '9' grade was added in to distinguish between the highest achievers.
Initially, most exams had two tiers: Higher, offering grades A to E (A* to E), and Basic, offering Grades F to G. The Higher tier was later modified to cover grades A* to D, while the Basic tier was renamed Foundation and now covered grades C to G. In addition, an '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* to C), Intermediate (grades B to E) and Basic/Foundation (grades D to G). However, Maths then moved to the standard two-tier system.
An alternative GCSE format was the Vocational GCSE (VGCSE), which encouraged pupils to take the work-related route and included courses such as Engineering and Manufacture, Applied Business, ICT, and Leisure and Tourism. Later on, the word 'Vocational' was dropped and a former Vocational GCSE is now known simply as a GCSE.
Science GCSEs were overhauled in over the past years. Pupils 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 an extension of permitted time.
There were further changes to the English GCSEs. Instead of the current system where (virtually) all pupils take English and the vast majority also take English Literature, pupils 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 pupil to gain a GCSE is home-educated Arran Fernandez, who took GCSE Mathematics at the age of five, gaining grade D, the highest available at Foundation Tier at that time. He also became the youngest ever pupil to gain an A* grade, also for GCSE Mathematics. The current record for the youngest pupil to gain an A* grade is held by Thomas Barnes.
The leading examining body, AQA (formally known as the Assessment and Qualifications Alliance) had proposed amendments to the present format of GCSEs and it has said the marking system is the purpose of its changes and these are intended to revise the method used for grading the examinations set at GCSE level. The improvements that the government in the United Kingdom had decided are going to happen and they will be the focus of its revision plan that is aimed at giving a more perfect structure to England's exam system. However, there are some problems with revising exams are marked, meaning that the proportion of candidates who have the opportunity to gain the best grades will fall.
The executive manager and Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of the Office of Qualifications and Examinations Regulation Glenys Stacey explained further to this point that the way that they will be taking the slant on the first year candidates will begin sitting the revised version that it is meant taking great consideration towards the evidence of numbers. By these means it is expected to be more straightforward when determining where the grade positions are going to appear in the framework having the purpose that will be followed when the method used for recording the marks in grade tables giving further clarity to teachers and candidates about the revisions to the marking system used at the moment so that the appearance of the grade tables when submitted reflects the changes. This will make sure that the year group pupils are not disadvantaged or advantaged because of the introduction of the new qualifications, and will provide some certainty about what to expect at this time of significant change. Brian Lightman, the head of the Association of School and College Leaders, gave this point: "Harder exams in themselves do not lead to higher standards. Excellent teaching and clear leadership are what enable pupils to achieve more."
Modular VS Linear Controversy:
The Conservative Party under Prime Minister David Cameron initiated reforms for A Levels and GCSEs to change from the current modular to a linear structure. British Examination Boards (Edexcel, AQA and OCR) regulated and accredited by the government of the United Kingdom responded to the government's reform announcements by modifying syllabi of several A Level and GCSE subjects. However, the Labour Party and in particular the Member of Parliament Tristram Hunt announced that it will halt and reverse the reforms and maintain the modular A-Level and GCSE system. In addition, the Labour Party, Tristram Hunt and the current modular GCSE and A-Level system are supported and promoted by the University of Oxford and by the University of Cambridge.
Statistics released by London’s Poverty Profile found overall GCSE attainment in London to be greater than the rest of England. 39% of pupils in Inner London and 37% in Outer London did not get five GCSEs at A* to C, compared with 42% in the rest of England. Also, according to an ITV News report, UK students tend to outperform Jersey students on GCSE examinations.
The declining number of pupils studying foreign languages in the UK has been a major concern of educational experts for many years. Paul Steer, the Exam Board Chief of the British exam board OCR recently expressed that "unless we act soon, even GCSE French and German could face the chop".
GCSEs have been reformed and altered significantly ever since they have been introduced. The main differences after the reformed exams are a new grading system of 9 to 1 with 9 being the highest grade, representing the top half of current grade A*. Assessment is mainly based on exams, with little or no coursework. The exams are developed to be 'more demanding' and 'better preparation for work'. Changes are coming into effect in phases.
The 'phase 1' of the GCSE reformations incorporates the subjects of English language, English literature and Mathematics.
The 'phase 2' of the GCSE reformations concerns ancient languages (classical Greek, Latin), art and design, biology, chemistry, citizenship studies, computer science, dance, double science, drama, food preparation and nutrition, geography, history, modern foreign languages (French, German, Spanish), music, physics, physical education and religious studies.
The 'phase 3' of the GCSE reformations includes ancient history, astronomy, business, classical civilisation, design and technology, economics, electronics, engineering, film studies, geology, media studies, most other modern foreign languages (such as Mandarin Chinese or Bengali) psychology, sociology and statistics.
Finally, the 'phase 4' of the GCSE reformations regards the remaining modern foreign languages (Gujarati, biblical Hebrew, Persian, Portuguese and Turkish).
Special educational needs
For pupils with learning difficulties, an injury/repetitive strain injury (RSI) or a disability, help is offered in these forms:
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. Pupils 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, which are specially designed for pupils with learning difficulties and other special needs.
Enquiries for re-marking of GCSE examinations:
Pupils and Teachers have the option to enquire re-marking of a pupil's GCSE exams if they feel the result does not reflect the pupil's expectation and/or ability or, after having reviewed a copy of the pupil's exam script, they detect a marking error.
The UK General Certificate of Secondary Education in comparison to the US High School Diploma
In the United States of America (USA) the high school diploma is the required educational qualification for entry into college (US equivalent of UK university).
In the United Kingdom, the high school diploma is considered to be at the level of the General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE), which is awarded at Year 11. For college and university admissions, the high school diploma may be accepted in lieu of the GCSE if an average grade better than D+ is obtained in subjects with a GCSE counterpart.
As the more academically rigorous A Levels awarded at Year 13 are expected for university admission, the high school diploma alone is generally not considered to meet university requirements. Pupils who wish to study in the United Kingdom may additionally participate in the Advanced Placement (AP) or International Baccalaureate (IB) programs, which are considered to be at the level of the A Level qualifications and earn points on the UCAS Tariff, or may opt to take A Level examinations in British international schools or as private candidates. College Entrance Examination Board (CEEB) tests, such as the SAT, SAT Subject Tests, or the ACT, may also be considered.
The Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS) recommends that in addition to a high school diploma, grades of 3 or above in at least two, or ideally three, Advanced Placement exams may be considered as meeting general entry requirements for admission. The IB Diploma may also be accepted. For the College Entrance Examination Board tests, a minimum score of 600 or higher in all sections of the SAT or a minimum score of 26 or higher in all sections of the ACT along with a minimum score of 600 in relevant SAT Subject Tests may be considered as meeting general entry requirements for admission.
Many of the subjects in this list are not available in every school.
Several other science based GCSEs are available to pupils in many schools. These include GCSE Astronomy and Geology.