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What are GCSEs?

by Madeleine

GCSEs are the exams taken by 15-16 year olds in England and Wales, taken over a couple of years. Students generally start studying for their GCSEs in Year 9 or Year 10 and take the examinations at the end of Year 11. It is required to sit GCSEs (or an equivalent such as a BTEC) in order to progress onto higher level qualifications such as A-Levels, and the achievement of 5 or more GCSEs at a grade above a C (or a 4) is commonly a requirement for entry into sixth form colleges around England and Wales. But what exactly are they, what’s on offer, and how many do you have to do?

How many GCSEs are enough?

In general, it is expected that students will take at least 5 GCSEs, but some will take up to 11 or 12 if they feel capable enough. How many you take is down to your own preference and what the school you are attending thinks is best for you. If that sounds like a lot of exams and a lot of knowledge to absorb, take comfort in the fact that you will have at least two years to prepare – while you can start studying around the age of 13 or 14, most of the time you won’t need to take them until you’re 15 or 16. On the flip side, if you’re feeling extra confident, you can take them earlier (in year 9 or 10) as enrolment is relatively flexible.

The grading system

Before 2017, GCSEs were graded at A* to C, with A* being the highest grade which generally accounted for marks over 90%. However, from 2017 GCSEs started being graded on a numerical scale from 9-1, with 9 being the highest. Grades 8 and 9 are roughly equivalent to the old A* grade, and were introduced in order to show distinction between the highest grades. Grade 7 is equivalent to an A, while grade 6 is slightly above the old B grade, grade 5 somewhere between B and C and grade 4 slightly lower than an old C. It may sound a little confusing, but over time I’m sure it will come as naturally as A,B,C. 

Another new aspect which was introduced to the GCSE course was the fact that assessment is now mainly done by exam, rather than coursework or any other type of assessment. This ‘linear’ style is in contrast to the previous ‘modular’ GCSE which saw students able to submit up to 60% of their overall mark before the final examination. The courses are also intended to be slightly more challenging than before, but are split into two different tiers – ‘foundation tier’ which is graded 5-1 and ‘higher tier’ which is graded 9-1. This means students can take two separate papers for each subject, with one being slightly harder (higher) than the other (foundation). If the student is not able to sit the higher paper, then the option to sit foundation is there.

What subjects can I do?

GCSE students are very lucky in that there is a huge range of subjects to chose from. Some are considered core subjects – these subjects comprise the ‘English Baccalaureate’ (or 'EBacc'). This Baccalaureate is not a separate qualification in and of itself (despite what the name suggests), but is just a name for a specific set of subjects which the government believes keeps young people’s options open for employment and further education and offers a broad range of skills. The Baccalaureate subjects are as follows:

•    English (language and literature)

•    Maths

•    The Sciences (Students can take Combined Science, which is worth 2 GCSEs, or 3 of the following: Chemistry, Physics, Biology, Computer Science)

•    A modern or ancient language

•    History or Geography

While only English, Maths and Science are compulsory, secondary schools are measured on the number of students that sit the full English Baccalaureate selection, and how well their students do in these. If a student goes to a grammar school, for example, it’s to be expected that they will be encouraged to take the English Baccalaureate. 

Outside of these subjects, there is a vast array of possible courses. Students can take Humanities subjects which range from Ancient History to Sociology; or Design and Technology courses such as Electronics or Food Preparation and Nutrition. Artists are well-covered, with options provided such as Dance, Drama, Film Studies and Music. However, some of the more niche subjects such as Media Studies my not be offered by all schools, and in some cases students who want to take more non-English Baccalaureate subjects will have to self-register or take the courses at a centre outside of their school. 


What can I do with a GCSE?

Once a student has received some GCSEs, a lot of opportunities are opened up to them. Students can go on to sit A Level, which will subsequently allow them to apply to University. GCSEs can help you get into your Sixth Form College of choice, or can help you get an apprenticeship or traineeship. Students with at least 4 GCSEs at grade A*-C (9-4) can sit a BTEC National qualification or an NVQ as an alternative to A Levels, which generally focus more on workplace and vocational skills than the more academic A Level. 

Hopefully this information helps make the path to a GCSE a little more clear!

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