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Friday, 5 October 2012


GCSEs are the main qualification taken by 14 to 16 year olds, but are available to anyone who would like to study a subject that interests them. You can take GCSEs in a wide range of academic and 'applied' (work-related) subjects.

GCSEs: what they are

GCSE stands for General Certificate of Secondary Education. It's highly valued by schools, colleges and employers, so will be useful whatever you are planning to do afterwards.

The qualification mainly involves studying the theory of a subject, combined with some investigative work. Some subjects also involve practical work. GCSEs are usually studied full-time at school or college, taking five terms to complete.

GCSEs are at levels 1 and 2 on the National Qualifications Framework, depending on the grade you get. The framework shows how different types of qualifications compare, in terms of the demands they place on learners.

Types of GCSEs

GCSEs are available in more than 40 academic and nine 'applied' subjects. The applied subjects are related to a broad area of work, such as engineering or tourism, and many are double the size of traditional GCSEs.

You can also take many GCSEs as short courses. These are equivalent to half a full GCSE, so can be taken in half the time. However, if you learn more slowly than others, you can spread a short course out over the same length as a traditional GCSE.

Short courses also allow more able students to take extra subjects, like a second foreign language.

Choosing GCSE subjects

Your school or college can advise you about the subjects available to you.

Advice for young people

You can look at your local 14-19 prospectus to see which courses and qualifications are available in your area.

For students in Years 10 and 11 (aged 14 to 16), it's compulsory to study some subjects as part of the National Curriculum. So it might be worth taking a GCSE so that you have something valuable at the end of your two years of study.

Advice for adult learners

Get advice about GCSEs and other qualifications for adult learners from Next Step.

  • Next Step¬†helpline: 0800 100 900

How you are assessed

GCSEs are assessed mainly on written exams, although in some subjects there are also elements of coursework. Some subjects, like art and design, have more coursework and fewer exams.

Some GCSE courses are made up of units; for these, you take exams at the end of each unit. Other GCSEs involve exams at the end of course.

For some subjects, everyone sits the same exam. For others, you have a choice of two tiers: 'higher' or 'foundation'. Each tier leads to a different range of grades. Your subject teacher normally decides which tier is best for you.

Exams usually take place in January and May/June.


Examiners work out how many 'raw marks' you need to get a certain grade. If you have taken a GCSE made up of units, your results slip may show a points score on the uniform mark scale (UMS). The UMS is a system examiners use to combine different unit marks to get your overall GCSE grade.


GCSEs are graded A*-G and U (unclassified):

  • higher tier exams leads to grades A*-D
  • foundation tier exams leads to grades C-G

The results are published in March and August.

Where they can lead

Getting a GCSE can lead to a number of routes: for example, work, further study or an Apprenticeship.

If you complete GCSEs at level 1, you could move on to other courses or work-based training at levels 1 or 2.

Completing GCSEs at level 2 can lead to other level 2 courses and level 3 courses of all types. However, sometimes if you want to take a level 3 course (such as an A level), you'll be expected to have a GCSE in the same subject.

If you're thinking about higher education, you may need GCSEs in certain subjects. Most universities and colleges will ask for five GCSEs grades A*-C, including English and maths (as well as A levels or equivalent qualifications).

If the exam doesn't go well

If on the day of the exam something happens outside your control to affect your performance, you may be eligible for special consideration. Speak to your teachers as soon as possible.


If your GCSE is made up of units, you can choose to resit individual units. The awarding body will count the higher mark from your different attempts. However, resitting takes time out from studying for other units, and is no easy option.

Re-marks and recounts

If you think something may have gone wrong with marking your exam, your school or college can ask for a re-mark or recount.


If you are still unhappy, your school or college can appeal to the awarding body, and then finally, if necessary, to the independent Examinations Appeals Board.

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