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What are GCSEs? And Other Commonly Asked Questions

For students living in England, Wales or Northern Ireland, there’s no escaping the fact that your secondary school years will be dominated by one word: GCSEs.

GCSEs are academic qualifications that most students are taught as part of the National Curriculum towards the end of their final few years in compulsory education. You usually study for them between the ages of fourteen and sixteen, sitting final exams at the end of the two year period - usually the summer term of year 11. 

These qualifications are an important part of your academic journey, laying the groundwork for all further study at sixth form, university, and even, for the job you want to have in the future. It’s important to start familiarising yourself with GCSEs as early-on as possible, allowing you to make the most informed decision possible when it comes to selecting your subjects.

To help you learn all about GCSEs: what they are, how they’re graded, as well as what and how many subjects you need to select, we’ve pulled together a comprehensive list of many of the most frequently asked questions from students below. 

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An Introduction to GCSEs

First, let’s learn about what GCSEs are and why they are an important part of your academic journey as a student in secondary school in England.

What are GCSEs?

In England, a student’s education is divided into four Key Stages between ages five and sixteen. The last of these is Key Stage 4 (often abbreviated to KS4) is taught to students between years 10 and 11 at school, typically when students are between the ages of fourteen and sixteen years-old.

The qualifications most students in England work towards during Key Stage 4 are called GCSEs, which are studied over a two-year period. They are assessed predominantly by written exams, which are taken at the end of your two years of study (typically in the summer term of year 11). However, some courses may also incorporate a small amount of coursework. 

What does GCSE stand for?

The acronym ‘GCSE’ stands for: General Certificate of Secondary Education. 

When did GCSEs start?

GCSEs were first introduced to schools in 1986. 

They were brought into the British Curriculum to replace the original O-Levels (short for Ordinary Levels) and CSEs (Certificates of Secondary Education), which were the qualifications studied pre-1986. 

What year do you do GCSEs?

In England, GCSEs are usually taken in years 10 and 11 of secondary school. The first year and a half are usually spent learning the content, with most assessments and examinations taking place in the spring and summer term of year 11. 

For most students, they will be between the ages of 14 and 16 when they study for their GCSE qualifications, with heavy revision for GCSEs starting in the first term of year 11.

Are GCSEs important?

In terms of your future studies, GCSEs are pretty important and can have a significant impact on what you do after year 11. 

In England, they’re recognised as the first major academic qualification of your academic journey, with final exam grades impacting which A-Levels you’ll study and where. Some universities may even look at your GCSE grades as part of the admissions process, while some employers may also ask for copies of your certificates during recruitment.

Therefore, you want to work hard during your GCSEs to secure the best grades possible and help you in your future pursuits. 

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Selecting your GCSEs

In England, most students will choose their GCSE subjects in year nine, in preparation for them to be studied over the following two school years. 

In advance of that all-important decision-making process, we’ve provided some guidance below on selecting your GCSE options: how many you need to choose, what the compulsory subjects are, and what other elective subjects you might want to select to help you best prepare for your future career.

How many GCSEs do you need to take?

The minimum number of subjects you are asked to take at GCSE is five, with most students choosing between nine and ten different subjects. You can choose to take more than the average amount, though this is down to you, your preferences and academic ability.

Usually, your school will be able to help you determine how many subjects you should choose, which could be as many as twelve. This decision will be based on your academic ability, as well as the resources available at the school to support students who wish to take more than the average number of GCSE subjects.

This number includes three compulsory subjects (which we’ll touch on later): English, Mathematics, and the Sciences, as well as a number of other subjects that you have the option of selecting. 

Should I take more than the average number of GCSEs?

It’s worth noting that the more GCSEs you choose to study is not directly related to gaining a better place at a sixth form college or at university in the future. Studying an average of nine or ten subjects is a lot of work in itself and sixth form colleges will prefer you to have succeeded in your core GCSE subjects than trying to study lots of different subjects and achieving a lower grade. 

Outside of school, students are recommended to spend an additional hour per week studying for their GCSE subjects. If your typical school day is five hours, and you are studying for ten GCSE subjects, then this is the equivalent to 35 hours of academic work a week at a minimum, which will only intensify in the run-up to exam season. 

You don’t want to overwhelm yourself with a heavy workload for your GCSEs by adding on additional subject content to learn about, especially if you are keen to keep up hobbies, sports, and other recreational or social activities - which you should to maintain a healthy work-life balance.

Besides, as mentioned above, for sixth form colleges and universities, it’s much better to have achieved good grades across fewer subjects than to underachieve in lots of different subjects. This is especially true for your core English, Maths and Science subjects - most sixth form colleges, universities and even jobs will ask you to have achieved at least five A*- Cs in your GCSEs, with these three normally listed as a must-have. 

What are the GCSE grades?

In 2015, National Curriculum changes came into force in schools in England, reforming GCSEs so that they were more ‘demanding’ and ‘rigorous’ for students.

As part of the changes, the GCSE grading system was overhauled. Instead of grading students on the old A to E scale, GCSEs are now graded on a numerical scale from 9 to 1. The highest grade a student can attain is a 9, while 1 is the lowest - not including a U (ungraded). 

The old GCSE grading system compared against the new GCSE grading system

For those of you familiar with the old A-E grading system, we’ve placed a comparison of the previous GCSE grading structure against the new marking system below for you to familiarise yourself with the format.

  • A* = Grade 8/Grade 9
  • A = Grade 7/Grade 8
  • B = Grade 5/Grade 6
  • C = Grade 4/Grade 5
  • D = Grade 3/Grade 4
  • E = Grade 2/Grade 3
  • F = Grade 1/Grade 2
  • G = Grade 1
  • U = Ungraded

Pearson Education explains the new format, sharing that grade boundaries are set arithmetically, hence why there are no ‘hard’ boundaries between the different grades. “For example, the boundaries at grades 5 and 6 will be set based on the difference in marks between grades 4 and 7; grade 5 will be set at one third of the difference in marks, and grade 6 at two thirds the difference in marks.”

What is a pass in GCSE?

Against the old grading system, a grade ‘C’ was considered a pass at GCSE. 

Now, students need to achieve a 4 for a ‘standard pass’ and 5 for a ‘strong pass.’ This means that any candidate who achieves nine grade-4s has passed all their exams. However, many sixth forms and colleges are insisting on a minimum of 5s and 6s as a condition of entry.

What GCSE options are there?

Compulsory GCSE subjects

For the majority of students, your GCSEs are probably the first time during school where you’ll have some freedom in being able to choose the subjects that you want to learn more about. 

However, before you start playing around with your different options, there are some compulsory subjects that you will need to study at Key Stage 4 that you should be aware of. These are:

  • English: Usually taught as two separate subjects: English Language and English Literature
  • Mathematics
  • Sciences: Usually divided into three subjects - Biology, Chemistry and Physics
  • Social Studies
  • Physical Education (PE)

Please note: There are usually no assessments in Social Studies or Physical Education. These are recreational subjects designed to keep students healthy and learn more about the modern world around them.

Optional GCSE subjects

In England, there are hundreds of GCSE subjects available to students at GCSE, mainly provided by the three main examination boards: AQA, Pearson Edexcel, and OCR

From these exam boards, your school will then select a variety of subjects across a range of disciplines, giving you a wide range of courses available to study at school, usually spread across the following subject groups:

  • The Arts: Art, Dance, Media Studies, Music, Photography, Theatre Studies, etc. 
  • Business: Business Studies, Economics, Finance, etc. 
  • Design and Technology: Engineering, Food Technology, Graphic Design, Product Design, Textiles, Woodwork, etc. 
  • The Humanities: History, Geography, Philosophy, Politics, etc.
  • Modern Foreign Languages: French, German, Spanish, etc.
  • Sciences: Psychology, Sociology, Sports Studies, etc.

As you can see, there are a wide range of options that you can choose from, meaning you can finally have control over selecting subjects that you enjoy learning more about.

There are only two things that can now be problematic in your decision-making:

  1. Trying to decide which out of the hundreds of subjects you want to pursue
  2. Ensuring the subjects you're interested in are offered by your school 

It's important to think about what you may want to study ahead of time, so you can see if your school offers that subject. For example, it’s no good getting your heart set on pursuing a career as a ballerina if your school doesn’t have the resources to offer GCSE Dance as a subject. 

Also, you want to start thinking about your options as early as possible to ensure you’re not rushed in your decision-making and choose something under the pressure of time. Your GCSEs are very important and you want to make sure you’re making a decision that’s right for you.

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A Guide to Choosing your GCSE Subjects

Deciding which GCSE subjects to pursue can be a difficult decision, especially if you don’t have a comprehensive idea of what career path you think you may want to pursue in the future. 

There are two main options for students choosing their GCSE subjects, based on your current feelings about your future career ambitions.

  • You know what job you want in the future

For students who know what type of job path they want to pursue in the future, they’ll have a better understanding of the types of subjects they will want to choose to study for GCSE.

If you have a specific job role, degree or even field of interest in mind, you can start narrowing your focus at GCSE and select subjects that are related to that career and therefore help you in the future. 

Spend some time conducting research online, speaking to friends/family, and even your school’s career centre to get a better understanding of what types of subjects are needed to help you achieve your dream career in the future. E.g. If you want to pursue a career in Marketing, you may want to try selecting Business-related subjects, as well as some creative design ones, such as Media Studies or Graphic Design - helping you gain the skills needed for a modern marketing degree.

However, just be careful not to narrow your options too far at this point. Yes, it’s good to have a focus towards your future ambition, but you want to make sure you leave room for some other less-specific jobs in case your plans change in the future. 

When you choose your GCSE subjects, you’ll probably only be fourteen years old. This is a very early age to know exactly what you want to do in the future. You’ll most likely have over forty years of work ahead of you, and your career could change several times during your lifetime. So, don’t make your future self have to re-train or catch up on a knowledge gap because you narrowed your options down too far at GCSE.

  • You have no idea what job you want in the future

Have no idea what job you may want in the future? You’re not alone. Thousands of students in England face the same dilemma every year: “How can I choose my GCSEs when I have absolutely no clue what I want to do in the future?” 

When it comes to choosing your GCSEs, fear not. Sixth form colleges and universities appreciate that you’ll be choosing your subjects very early on in your academic journey, and will understand that many students haven’t yet got an idea of what type of career they envision for the future. 

Therefore, we recommend that you select a general selection of different subjects across different fields of interest, giving you the opportunity to grow in different areas, spend time getting to know different subjects better as you focus on them at GCSE and find out where your interests lie. 

Of course, you probably want to choose your subjects from those that you perform best in right now - just to give you that additional boost of confidence that you’ll be able to do well in them at Key Stage 4. Your teachers will be able to help guide you in the right direction here.

But by keeping your selection generalised, you in turn keep your options ‘open,’ giving you a few more years to explore your future opportunities and start to focus on the areas that interest you the most.

For a deeper dive into tips and guidance on how to select the GCSE subjects that will best benefit your skillset and ambitions for the future, take a look at our article: A Guide to Choosing your GCSE Subjects.

Summary

If you’re a student in England, when you start secondary school you’ll hear lots of teachers start talking about “GCSEs.” GCSEs are an important part of your time at secondary school; they’re the first set of certificated qualifications you work towards in years 10 and 11.

As the first major stepping stone in your academic career, the subjects and grades you obtain at GCSE can play an important role in your future decision-making, with sixth form colleges, universities, and even some employers looking at your GCSE qualifications as part of their admissions process.

Choose subjects that will gear you towards your dream opportunities, that you think you’ll obtain good grades in, and, most importantly, that you’ll enjoy. GCSEs require a lot of time and effort put into them, and you want to make sure that the subjects you choose are ones you find interesting and want to spend much more time learning about. 

Get a head-start on your GCSEs with a summer school

Deciding on what subjects you want to pursue at GCSE? Maybe you’ve just selected your options and want to gain a competitive edge when you return to the classroom in September?

Join us for an academic summer school here in Oxford or Cambridge for a chance to explore a potential subject option, build your subject knowledge and learn from an expert tutor. 

Our summer courses start at 2 weeks in length: the perfect amount of time to acquaint yourself with a new subject and decide if it’s something you want to pursue in the future. 

Even if it’s something you decide isn’t right for you, you’ll still have a great time exploring your student city, meeting and working with other students like you from all over the world, and enjoying a bustling timetable of extracurricular activities. It’s an enriching summer learning experience, delivered by an award-winning course provider.

Want to find out more? Browse the subjects we have available for students aged 13-15 or contact our admissions team to speak with an advisor. 

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Summary

Get ready for your GCSE years with our comprehensive guide to these qualifications for secondary school students.

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