A mock-up of an English Language exam paper's front page
TypePrerequisite to a school leaving certificate
Skills testedVaries depending on subject, but in almost all GCSE subjects general knowledge, fundamental writing and numerical skills are tested.
Year started1988 (1988)
Score range
  • England: Grades from 9 to 1, with 9 being the highest
  • Wales: Grades from A* to G, with A* being the highest
  • Northern Ireland: Grades from A* to G, with A* being the highest. There is also a C* grade
Restrictions on attemptsAll units for a single subject must be taken in one examination series. Only the first attempt of a student is recorded for school league table purposes, but students may take a subject as many times as they like.
RegionsEngland, Wales and Northern Ireland
LanguagesEnglish, Irish a and Welsh b
FeeFree to students in schools. Resits and private entries incur variable fees.
^a Irish-medium exams are only available in Northern Ireland, from the CCEA exam board. ^b Welsh-medium exams are only available in Wales, from the WJEC exam board.

The General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE) is an academic qualification in a range of subjects taken in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, having been introduced in September 1986 and its first exams taken in 1988. State schools in Scotland use the Scottish Qualifications Certificate instead. However, private schools in Scotland often choose to follow the English GCSE system.[1]

Each GCSE qualification is offered in a specific school subject such as English literature, English language, mathematics, science, history, geography, art and design, design and technology, business studies, classical civilisation, drama, music and foreign languages.[2]

The Department for Education has drawn up a list of core subjects known as the English Baccalaureate for England based on the results in eight GCSEs, which includes both English language and English literature, mathematics, three of the four sciences (physics, chemistry, biology, computer science), geography or history and an ancient or modern foreign language.[3]

Studies for GCSE examinations take place over a period of two or three academic years (depending upon the subject, school, and exam board), starting in Year 9 or Year 10 for the majority of pupils, with examinations usually being sat at the end of Year 11 in England and Wales.[a]


Previous qualifications

Before the introduction of GCSEs, pupils took CSE (Certificate of Secondary Education) or the more academically challenging O-Level (General Certificate of Education (GCE) Ordinary Level) exams, or a combination of the two, in various subjects. The CSE broadly covered GCSE grades C-G or 4–1 and the O-Level covered grades A*-C or 9–4, but the two were independent qualifications, with different grading systems. The separate qualifications were criticized for disadvantaging the bottom 42% of O-Level entrants, who failed to receive a qualification, and the highest-achieving CSE entrants, who had no opportunity to demonstrate higher ability.

In their later years O-Levels were graded on a scale from A to E, with a U (ungraded) below that. Before 1975 the grading scheme varied between examination boards, but typically there were pass grades of 1 to 6 and fail grades of 7 to 9. However the grades were not displayed on certificates.

The CSE was graded on a numerical scale from 1 to 5, with 1 being the highest and 5 the lowest passing grade. Below 5 there was a U (ungraded) grade. The highest grade, 1, was considered equivalent to an O-Level C grade or above, and achievement of this grade often indicated that the pupil could have taken an O-Level course in the subject to achieve a higher qualification. As the two were independent qualifications with separate syllabi, a separate course of study would have to be taken to convert a CSE to an O-Level in order to progress to A-Level.

There was a previous attempt to unite these two disparate qualifications in the 1980s, with a trial ‘16+‘ examination in some subjects, awarding both a CSE and an O-Level certificate, before the GCSE was introduced. The final O-level/CSE examinations were sat in 1987.

Introduction of the GCSE

GCSEs were introduced in September 1986[4] to establish a national qualification for those who decided to leave school at 16 without pursuing further academic study towards qualifications such as A-Levels or university degrees. The first GCSE exams were sat in 1988.[5] They replaced the former CSE and O-Level qualifications, uniting the two qualifications to allow access to the full range of grades for more pupils. However the exam papers of the GCSE sometimes had a choice of questions, designed for the more able and the less able candidates.

When introduced the GCSEs were graded from A to G, with a C being set as roughly equivalent to an O-Level Grade C or a CSE Grade 1 and thus achievable by roughly the top 25% of each cohort.

The Royal Alexandra & Albert School in Reigate, Surrey, trialled GCSE English in 1980. Those who passed would receive both a CSE and an O'Level certificate. There was still a separate English Literature O'Level exam.

Changes since initial introduction

Over time the range of subjects offered, the format of the examinations, the regulations, the content and the grading of GCSE examinations have altered considerably. Numerous subjects have been added and changed, and various new subjects are offered in modern languages, ancient languages, vocational fields and expressive arts, as well as citizenship courses.[6]

Introduction of the A* grade

In 1994 the A* grade was added above the grade A to further differentiate attainment at the very highest end of the qualification. This remained the highest grade available until 2017, when numerical grades were introduced (see below). The youngest pupil to gain an A* grade was Thomas Barnes, who earned an A* in GCSE Mathematics at the age of 7.[7]

Mathematics tiers

Initially the mathematics papers were set in three tiers: Higher, Intermediate and Foundation, to cover different mathematical abilities. The Higher level corresponded to grades A-C, the Intermediate level corresponded to grades C-E and the Foundation level corresponded to grades E-G. However it was later realised that nobody who sat the Foundation level had any chance of passing the subject at grade C, so this arrangement was replaced by a two-tier arrangement whereby the Intermediate and Foundation levels were merged. This brought the subject into line with other subjects that typically had foundation and higher-level papers. This meant that somebody who sat the new Foundation level could now achieve a grade C, which was considered the formal pass level.

With the introduction of numbered grades, the Higher tier provides grades 9-4, with 4 being a pass, and the Foundation tier provides grades 5-1.

2000s reforms

Between 2005 and 2010 a variety of reforms were made to GCSE qualifications, including increasing modularity and a change to the administration of non-examination assessment.

From the first assessment series in 2010, controlled assessment replaced coursework in various subjects, requiring more rigorous exam-like conditions for much of the non-examination assessed work and reducing the opportunity for outside help in coursework.

2010s reforms

Under the Conservative government of David Cameron various changes were made to GCSE qualifications taken in England. Before a wide range of reforms, interim changes were made to existing qualifications, removing the January series of examinations as an option in most subjects and requiring that 100% of the assessment in subjects from the 2014 examination series be taken at the end of the course. These were a precursor to the later reforms.[8]

From 2015 a large-scale programme of reform began in England, changing the marking criteria and syllabi for most subjects as well as the format of qualifications and the grading system.[9][10]

Under the new scheme all GCSE subjects were revised between 2015 and 2018 and all new awards were to be on the new scheme by summer 2020. The new qualifications are designed such that most exams will be taken at the end of a full 2-year course, with no interim modular assessment, coursework nor controlled assessment except where necessary (such as in the arts). Some subjects retain coursework on a non-assessed basis, with the completion of certain experiments in science subjects being assumed in examinations and teacher reporting of spoken language participation for English GCSEs as a separate report.

Other changes include the move to a numerical grading system to differentiate the new qualifications from the old-style letter-graded GCSEs, publication of core content requirements for all subjects and an increase in longer, essay-style questions to challenge pupils more. Alongside this a variety of low-uptake qualifications and qualifications with significant overlap will cease, with their content being removed from the GCSE options or incorporated into similar qualifications. A range of new GCSE subjects was also introduced for pupils to study from 2017, 2018, 2019, and 2020.[11]

GCSE examinations in English and mathematics were reformed with the 2015 syllabus publications, with these first examinations taking place in 2017. The remainder were reformed with the 2016 and 2017 syllabus publications, leading to first awards in 2018 and 2019 respectively.

For GCSE Science the old single-award ‘science’ and ‘additional science’ options are no longer available, being replaced with a double award ‘combined science’ option (graded on the scale 9–9 to 1–1 and equivalent to 2 GCSEs). Alternatively pupils can take separate qualifications in chemistry, biology and physics. Other removed qualifications include a variety of design technology subjects, which are reformed into a single ‘design and technology’ subject with several options, and various catering and nutrition qualifications, which are folded into ‘food technology’. Finally several ‘umbrella’ GCSEs such as ‘humanities’, ‘performing arts’ and ‘expressive arts’ are dissolved, with those wishing to study those subjects needing to take separate qualifications in the incorporated subjects.[12]

Implications for Wales and Northern Ireland

These reforms did not apply immediately in Wales and Northern Ireland, where GCSEs would continue to be available on the A*-G grading system. However owing to legislative requirements for comparability between GCSEs in the three countries and allowances for certain subjects and qualifications to be available in Wales and Northern Ireland, some 9–1 qualifications were to be available and the other changes were mostly adopted in these countries as well.[13]

In Northern Ireland a decision was taken by Minister of Education, Peter Wier (DUP), in 2016 to align the A* Grade to the 9 Grade of the English reformed qualifications.[14] The first award of the new A* grade being in 2019. A C* grade was also introduced in Northern Ireland to align to the 5 Grade in England, again with first awarding in 2019. GCSEs in Northern Ireland remain modular and Science practicals can count towards the overall grade. Speaking and listening also remains a component of the GCSE English Language specification.

Examination boards

Historically, there were a variety of regional examination boards, or awarding organisations (AOs), who set examinations in their area. The 5 examination boards include:

The examination boards operate under the supervision of Ofqual (The Office of Qualifications and Examinations Regulation) in England, Qualifications Wales in Wales, and the CCEA in Northern Ireland.

In England, AQA, OCR, and Pearson operate under their respective brands. Additionally, WJEC operate the brand Eduqas, which develops qualifications in England. CCEA qualifications are not available in England.

In Wales, WJEC is the only accredited awarding body for GCSEs in the public sector, and thus no other board formally operates in Wales. However, some qualifications from the English boards are available as designated qualifications in some circumstances, due to not being available from WJEC.

In Northern Ireland, CCEA operates as both a board and a regulator. Most qualifications from the English boards are also available, with the exception of English language and the sciences, due to requirements for speaking and practical assessment, respectively.[15]

Structure and format

Pupils usually take 7-10 GCSEs in Key Stage 4. The exact qualifications taken vary from school to school and pupil to pupil but all schools are encouraged to offer a pathway that leads to qualification for the English Baccalaureate, requiring GCSEs in English literature, English language, mathematics, science (including computer science), a modern or ancient language and history and geography.[3]


The list of currently available GCSE subjects is much shorter than before the reforms, since the new qualifications in England all have core requirements set by the regulator, Ofqual, for each subject. In addition there are several subjects for which only one board offers qualifications, including some that are available only in one country of the UK for that reason. The following lists are sourced from the exam board websites.[16][17][18][19][20][21]

Core subjects

These are the requirements for achieving the English Baccalaureate headline measure in league tables, from 2017 onwards.[22] Other subjects, especially religious studies, citizenship studies, computer science and physical education are compulsory in the majority of secondary schools since these subjects form part of the National Curriculum at Key Stage 4.

Other subjects

Northern Ireland (CCEA)


Grades and tiering

GCSEs are awarded on a graded scale and cross two levels of the Regulated Qualifications Framework (RQF): Level 1 and Level 2. These two levels roughly correspond, respectively, to foundation and higher tier in tiered GCSE qualifications. Level 1 qualifications constitute GCSEs at grades G, F, E, and D or 1, 2, and 3. Level 2 qualifications are those at grades C, B, A, and A* or 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, and 9.

The tiering of qualifications allows a subset of grades to be reached in a specific tier's paper. Formerly many subjects were tiered, but with the mid-2010s reform the number of tiered subjects reduced dramatically, including the removal of tiering from the GCSE English specifications. Untiered papers allow any grade to be achieved. Coursework and controlled assessment tasks are always untiered.

In the past mathematics qualifications offered a different set of tiers, with three. These were foundation tier at grades G, F, E, and D; intermediate tier at grades E, D, C, and B; and higher tier at grades C, B, A, and A*. This eventually changed to match the tiers in all other GCSE qualifications.

The evolution of grades and a rough comparison between them are as follows:

Approximate equivalences for GCSE, O-Level and CSE grades
National Cohort GCSE Grade O-Level Grade CSE Grade
%'ile England
from 2017 a
Northern Ireland
from 2019 b
Wales from 1994
England, NI 1994–2019 c
1988–1993 1975–1987 d 1965–1987
5% 9 A* A* A A 1
15% 8 A B
25% 7 D 2
40% 6 B B C E
55% 5 C* D
C U 3
70% 4 C E 4
85% 3 D D F 5
95% 2 E E G U
98% 1

Letter grades

When GCSEs were introduced in 1988 they were graded on a letter scale in each subject: A, B, C, D, E, F and G being pass grades, with a U (unclassified) below that, which did not qualify the pupil for a certificate. These grades were initially set such that a GCSE grade C was equivalent to an O-Level grade C or a CSE grade 1, though changes in marking criteria and boundaries over the years mean that this comparison is only approximate.

Infrequently, X and Q grades are awarded. X indicates that a course was not completed and therefore an appropriate grade cannot be calculated. The Q (query) grade is a temporary grade that requires the school to contact the examining body. These two grades are usually provisional and are replaced with a normal grade once any issues have been resolved. X grades are also sometimes used for other purposes on rare occasions, such as to indicate that an examiner found offensive material or hate speech within a pupil’s answers. In some cases this may lead to the pupil losing all marks for that paper or course. These grades are most common in subjects that cover ethical issues, such as biology, religious studies and citizenship.

In 1994 an A* grade was added above the initial A grade to indicate exceptional achievement, above the level required for the A grade.

Under the letter grade scheme, foundation tier papers assess content at grades C to G, while higher tier papers assess content at grades A* to C. In foundation-tier papers, pupils can obtain a maximum grade of a C, while in a higher-tier paper they can achieve a minimum grade of a D. Higher-tier candidates who miss the D grade by a small margin are awarded an E. Otherwise the grade below E in these papers is U. In untiered papers pupils can achieve any grade in the scheme. This scheme has been phased out in England, but remains in Wales and Northern Ireland. In Northern Ireland the A* grade has been adjusted upwards with the introduction of the numerical scheme in England, such that an A* is equivalent to a new English grade 9. Northern Ireland also added a C* grade to line up with the grade 5 in the English grading.

Numerical grades (2017 onwards)

Since 2017 in England (and in Wales and Northern Ireland on qualifications from the English-based awarding bodies) most GCSEs have been assessed on a 9-point scale, using numbers from 9 to 1, and, as before, a U (unclassified) grade for achievement below the minimum pass mark. Under this system 9 is the highest grade and is set above the former A* classification, equivalent to the new Northern Irish A* grade. A grade 8 is also equivalent to an A*, however the grade 9 is the top end of the A*. The former C grade is set at the new grade 4, now known as a ‘standard pass’, and grade 5 being considered a ‘strong pass! under the new scheme.

Although fewer qualifications have tiered examinations than before, the tiering system still exists. At foundation tier the grades 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5 are available, whilst at higher tier the grades 4, 5, 6, 7, 8 and 9 are targeted. Once again higher-tier pupils who miss the grade 4 mark by a small margin are awarded a grade 3. Controlled assessment and coursework tasks are untiered. The youngest person known to have achieved a grade 9 is Ellie Barnes, who achieved the grade in Mathematics aged eight.[24][25][26]


Infographic from Ofqual showing statistics about GCSE entries in 2016. 5.24 million people took a GCSE in that year.

GCSE results are published by the examination board in August for the exam series in April to June of the same year. They are usually released one week after the A-Level results, on the Thursday that falls between 20 August and 26 August. The examination results are released to centres (schools) prior to the release to candidates and the public. Examination results are released by the Joint Council for Qualifications (JCQ), which represents the main GCSE awarding organisations. Some boards and schools release results online, although many still require pupils to attend in person to collect their results from the centre at which they sat the exams.[27]

In England these results then go on to inform league tables published in the following academic year, with headline performance metrics for each school. Owing to COVID-19, pupils who were supposed to sit their GCSEs in 2020 and 2021 were awarded qualifications based on predicted grades from their teachers. Traditional exams, however, have been taken since the summer of 2022.


Grades awarded (percentage)[28]
A* A B C D E F G U A*+A A*-C entries
1988 8.4 12.8 20.7 19.3 16.6 12.5 6.3 3.4 8.4 41.9 5,230,047
1989 9.9 13.8 21.9 19 15.8 11.2 5.6 2.9 9.9 45.6 5,132,998
1990 10.8 14.4 22.5 18.7 15.3 10.6 5.2 2.5 10.8 47.7 5,016,547
1991 11.4 14.7 22.4 18.6 15 10.5 5.3 2.2 11.4 48.5 4,947,593
1992 12.3 15.3 22.9 18.6 14.7 9.9 4.7 1.6 12.3 50.5 5,028,554
1993 12.5 15.9 23.1 18.6 14.2 9.3 4.4 1.8 12.5 51.5 4,968,634
1994 2.8 10.2 18 21.8 18.7 13.7 9.3 4.1 1.5 13 52.8 5,029,599
1995 3.2 9.9 17.8 22.1 18.6 14 9 3.9 1.5 13.1 53 5,431,625
1996 3.4 10.3 18 22.3 18.6 13.4 8.7 3.8 1.5 13.7 54 5,475,872
1997 3.6 10.5 18.1 22.3 18.7 13.3 8.5 3.6 1.5 14.1 54.4 5,415,176
1998 4.1 10.6 16.5 23.6 18.6 13.2 7.6 3.5 2.3 14.7 54.8 5,353,095
1999 4.4 10.8 16.9 23.7 18.7 12.7 7.5 3.3 2 15.2 55.8 5,374,751
2000 4.6 11.2 17 23.8 18.4 12.5 7.2 3.2 2.1 15.8 56.6 5,481,920
2001 4.9 11.2 16.9 24.1 18.3 12.1 7.1 3.3 2.1 16.1 57.1 5,632,936
2002 5 11.4 17.4 24.1 18.1 12 6.7 3.2 2.1 16.4 57.9 5,662,382
2003 5.1 11.6 17.3 24.1 17.7 11.7 6.8 3.3 2.4 16.7 58.1 5,733,487
2004 5.6 11.8 17.3 24.5 17.3 11.3 6.6 3.2 2.4 17.4 59.2 5.875,373
2005 5.9 12.5 18 24.8 17.3 10.5 6 2.8 2.2 18.4 61.2 5,736,505
2006 6.3 12.8 18.3 25 17.3 10.2 5.6 2.6 1.9 19.1 62.4 5,752,152
2007 6.4 13.1 18.6 25.2 17.2 9.8 5.3 2.4 2 19.5 63.3 5,827,319
2008 6.8 13.9 19.8 25.2 16.6 9.1 4.7 2.3 1.6 20.7 65.7 5,669,077
2009 7.1 14.5 19.9 25.6 16.5 8.5 4.4 2.1 1.4 21.6 67.1 5,469,260
2010 7.5 15.1 20.6 25.9 15.9 7.8 4 1.9 1.3 22.6 69.1 5,374,490
2011 7.8 15.4 21.7 24.9 15.1 7.8 4.1 2 1.2 23.2 69.8 5,151,970
2012 7.3 15.1 21.7 25.3 15.9 7.7 4.1 1.9 1 22.4 69.4 5,225,288
2013 6.8 14.5 21.5 25.3 16.6 8 4.1 2 1.2 21.3 68.1 5,445,324
2014 6.7 14.6 21.9 25.6 16.3 7.6 3.8 2.0 1.5 21.3 68.8 5,217,573
2015 6.6 14.6 22.1 25.7 16.4 7.6 3.7 1.9 1.4 21.2 69 5,277,604
2016 6.5 14.0 21.4 25.0 16.9 8.3 4.2 2.1 1.6 20.5 66.9 5,240,796
2017 7.1 14.2 20.6 23.5 16.8 9.3 4.7 2.3 1.5 21.3 65.3 3,694,771
2018 7.0 14.7 21.8 23.4 15.2 8.5 4.5 2.7 2.2 21.7 66.9 860,246

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% achieved grades A to C.

Grades awarded (percentage)[29]
9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1 U 9–7 9–4 entries
2018 4.3 6.5 9.5 13.2 16.8 16.6 17.6 9.5 4.4 1.6 20.3 66.9 4,609,830
2019 4.5 6.7 9.4 13.4 16.6 16.4 17.3 9.5 4.5 1.7 20.6 67.0 5,070,481
2020 6.3 8.1 11.5 14.8 17.4 17.8 14.2 6.8 2.7 0.4 25.9 75.9 5,214,030
2021 7.4 9.1 12.0 14.5 17.1 16.8 12.1 6.8 3.2 1.0 28.5 76.9 5,236,858
2022 6.6 8.5 10.9 14.7 17.4 14.9 13.0 8.5 4.0 1.6 26.0 73.0 5,219,550
2023 4.9 7.1 9.6 14.0 16.6 15.6 16.0 9.3 4.9 2.0 21.6 67.8 5,422,613

Assessment types

Modular and linear GCSEs

In the past, many GCSE qualifications used a modular system, where some assessment (up to 60% under the 'terminal rule') could be submitted prior to the final examination series. This allowed for students to take some units of a GCSE before the final examination series, and thus gave indication of progress and ability at various stages, as well as allowing for students to resit exams in which they did not score as highly, in order to boost their grade, before receiving the qualification. Various qualifications were available as both modular and linear schemes, and schools could choose whichever fit best for them.

Under the Conservative government of David Cameron, reforms were initiated which converted all GCSEs from 2012 (for assessment from 2014) to de facto linear schemes, in advance of the introduction of new specifications between 2015 and 2018 (for first assessment from 2017 to 2020). These new rules required that 100% of the assessment in a GCSE be submitted in the final examination series, at the same time as applying for certification of the full qualification.[30][31][32] The examination boards complied by modifying the syllabi of the remaining GCSE qualifications to remove modular components.[30][32][33]

Coursework and controlled assessment

In some subjects, one or more controlled assessment or coursework assignments may also be completed. These may contribute either a small or large proportion of the final grade. In practical and performance subjects, they generally have a heavier weighting to reflect the difficulty and potential unfairness of conducting examinations in these areas.

In the past, these were available in a variety of subjects, including extended writing in English, the sciences, business, and foreign languages; practical assessment in the sciences and technology subjects; and speaking assessments in languages. Since the 2010s reform, the availability has been cut back, with mostly only design and technology subjects and performing arts retaining their controlled assessment contributions. In English language, the spoken language assessment has been downgraded to an endorsement which is reported separately on the English certificate, not contributing to the grade. The English spoken language assessments are set throughout the course and assessed by teachers. Students can be awarded a Pass, Merit, Distinction or Not Classified. In the sciences, practical exercises are a required part of the qualification, but are not directly assessed; they are only endorsed by a teacher's statement.

The balance between controlled assessment and examinations is contentious, with the time needing to be set aside for coursework sessions being seen as a burden on the school timetable. However, the use of controlled assessment allows for the marking of some work outside of examination season, and can ease the burden on students to perform well on the day of the examination.

Exceptional and mitigating circumstances

For pupils with learning difficulties, an injury/repetitive strain injury (RSI) or a disability, help is offered in these forms. These may not necessarily be diagnosed, depending on the context.

Any of the above must be approved by the examination board. Other forms of help are available with the agreement of the examination board, but the above are the most common.

If a student is ill or an unforeseen circumstance occurs that may affect their performance in an examination, they can apply for special consideration from the examination board. The procedures vary depending on how much the student has completed, but in the case of sitting an examination, they may receive a percentage increase on their grade to reflect this, or a consideration of their coursework and other assessment alongside their predicted grades, to calculate a fair grade based on their other attainment.


GCSEs and other Level 2 qualifications are generally required in order to pursue Level 3 qualifications, such as A-Levels or BTEC (Business and Technology Education Council) beyond the age of 16.

The requirement of 5 or more 9–4 grades, including English, Mathematics and Science is often a requirement for post-16 qualifications in sixth form colleges and further education colleges after leaving secondary school.

Most universities, in addition to their post-16 requirements, seek that their candidates have grades of 4 or higher in GCSE English, Mathematics and Science. Many of those who achieve below this standard will later retake GCSEs to improve their grade and results. The November examination series exists for this purpose, to allow a faster path to gain these grades than waiting until the following summer's main series. Leading universities often take into account performance at GCSE level, sometimes expecting applicants to have a high proportion of top grades.[34][35][36][37]

Comparison with other qualifications

Within the UK

England, Wales and Northern Ireland

GCSEs in England, Wales, and Northern Ireland are part of the Regulated Qualifications Framework. A GCSE at grades G, F, E, D, 1, 2, or 3 is a Level 1 qualification. A GCSE at C, B, A, A*, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, or 9 is a Level 2 qualification. Qualifications are not awarded to grades U, X or Q. Level 2 qualifications are much more sought-after, and generally form minimum requirements for jobs and further study expectations.

The BTEC is another Level 1/2 qualification available in the same territories as the GCSE, and is graded at 5 levels. At Level 2, comparable to A*, A, B, and C respectively are the Distinction*, Distinction, Merit, and Pass. A BTEC at Level 1 is simply marked as "Level 1", with no subdivision. Below that level, a U is awarded, as in GCSEs. Other qualifications at this level include Cambridge Nationals, Key Skills, and Functional Skills.

Some schools in the UK choose to enter their students for IGCSE examinations.[38]


The comparable qualifications in Scotland are the National 4 and National 5 awards (formerly Standard Grades and/or Intermediates).

Outside the UK

The international version of the GCSE is the IGCSE, which can be taken anywhere in the world and 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 GCSE subjects.

Current and former British territories

The education systems of current and former British territories, such as Gibraltar,[39] 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 qualifications called O-levels.[40]


In the Republic of Ireland, the Junior Certificate is a comparable qualification.

United States

In the United States, a high school diploma is required for entry into college or university. In the UK, this is considered to be at the level of the GCSE, awarded at Year 11.[41][42] For college and university admissions in the UK, a 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.[41]

As A-levels are generally expected for UK university admission, a high school diploma is not considered enough for direct university entry in the UK. Advanced Placement programmes or International Baccalaureate are considered equal to the A-level and earn points on the UCAS tariff. They may therefore be accepted in lieu of A-levels for university entry in the UK by US students. However, entry requirements differ at each university and may take subsequent work history after high school in place of A-levels/AP for future study applications.

The SAT Reasoning Test and SAT Subject Tests, or the ACT may also be considered in an offer for direct university entry.

US students who have studied at a university, a senior college, a community college; or graduated with a certificate, diploma or associate degree may have their credits and award transferred into a UK university, subject to entry requirements.


The Diplôme National du Brevet (previously Brevet des Collèges) is generally considered to be comparable to four GCSEs.[43] The Brevet is usually sat in troisième (or year 10 in England and Wales).


Grade disparity

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.[44] Also, according to an ITV News report, UK students tend to outperform Jersey students on GCSE examinations.[45] Gender bias is another area of concern. Department of Education data shows that the relative performance gap between girls and boys widened under GCSEs, compared with O-Levels.[46]

Grade inflation

When the GCSE system was introduced, there were comments that it was a dumbing down from the previous 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).[47]

In addition, the proportions of candidates awarded high grades at GCSE 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 over a period of about 20 years, Robert Coe found a general improvement in grades awarded which ranges from 0.2 (science) to 0.8 (maths) of a GCSE grade.[48] 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.[49]

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.[50] In 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.[51]

Mental health

Senior school leaders, the NSPCC, and Childline have expressed concern that GCSEs in their current exam-only format are too stressful and will lead to mental health crises. Students in 2019 were subjected to more exams and spent longer in the exam hall than their 2016 counterparts. While a GCSE student in 2016 had an average of 18 exams to prepare for, totalling 24 hours and 30 minutes, the average examinee in 2019 sat 22 exams, totalling 33 hours.[52]

The Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) surveyed 606 headteachers from schools that had entered pupils for exam-only GCSEs. They found reports of panic attacks, sleepless nights, depression, extreme fatigue, self-harming, and suicidal thoughts.[53]

Effects encountered due to exam-only GCSE format 2017–18
Effect Number of headmasters/mistresses reporting effect (%) Percentage of sample reporting problems
Panic attacks 460 (75.9%) 84.2%
Sleepless nights 457 (75.4%) 83.7%
Depression 394 (65.0%) 72.2%
Extreme fatigue 344 (56.8%) 63.0%
Self-harming 340 (56.1%) 62.3%
Suicidal thoughts 216 (35.6%) 39.6%
Sample reporting problems 546 (90.1%) 100.0%

Even before all GCSE qualifications adopted the exam-only format, students complained about the memorization load, the need to write continuously for long hours, how their social lives have been affected and the need for sleeping pills and painkillers. They have observed younger siblings starting to panic about the exams at the beginning of the course- not just in the final year or the final few months.[54]

Social divide

The incorporation of GCSE awards into school league tables, and the setting of targets at school level at above national average levels of attainment, has been criticised. 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.[55] Sir Keith Joseph set schools a target of 90% of their pupils obtaining at least a grade F (which was the "average" grade achieved in the past). This target was reached nationally about 20 years later. David Blunkett went further and set schools the goal of 50% of 16-year-olds gaining 5 GCSEs or equivalent at grade C and above, although these grades were previously only obtained by the top 30%. This was achieved with the help of equivalent and largely vocational qualifications.[56] Labelling schools as failing if 40% of their pupils do not achieve at least 5 Cs, including English and Maths at GCSE, has also been criticised, as it essentially requires 40% of each intake to achieve the grades only obtained by the top 20% when GCSE was introduced.[57][58]

The extent of the switching away from the terminal exam only GCSE to the IGCSEs in public and private schools was revealed in answers to a parliamentary question posed by Labour MP Lucy Powell in November 2018. The option to choose to do so is no longer open to state schools since the introduction of the new GCSEs graded 1–9.[59][60]

Michael Gove, the architect of these reformed examinations, said in 2009: "Denying IGCSEs in core subjects to children in state schools will only serve to increase the level of inequality in education''.[61]

Errors and mistakes

Teachers and pupils have the option to question exam results and have the scripts marked again if they feel the grade awarded does not reflect the pupil's ability and expectations; or if they review a copy of the script and notice a marking error. In recent years, there have been complaints that GCSEs and GCE A-Levels were marked unfairly. (In 2012, for the first time in the history of the exams, the proportion of all GCSEs awarded an A*–C grade fell).[62]

This can be seen as, in general, more appeals being submitted each year, however the appeals rarely result in any grade changes as only 182 out of 6.2 million (0.003%) grades were changed in England in 2018, with most upheld appeals ending in no change of marks.[63]

In one incident concerning the 2016 GCSE biology exam, there were complaints about the apparent lack of biology content in the exam.[64][65][66] One of the questions in the biology exam asked students to define an "independent company", which some students perceived to be a business studies question.[67]

The May 2017 English literature exam (under the regulation of OCR) wrongly implied that Tybalt, a character in Romeo and Juliet, was not a Capulet. This serious flaw in the question confused many of the students. OCR accepted responsibility and claimed no pupil would be disadvantaged. The question was worth 40 marks, a relatively large number of marks.[68]

In 2022, advance information was given by examination boards to students, providing them with information on what topics would or would not be on the exam. However, in the Physics paper 1 exam, a topic that was stated as "Not Assessed" came up; AQA accepted the mistake and awarded all students the full 9 marks to the question.[69] Also, in 2022, a question on one of the higher Maths papers was leaked hours before students sat them. The exam board Edexcel apologised and conducted a full investigation.[70]


Main article: 2020 UK GCSE and A-Level grading controversy

In 2020 as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, GCSE examinations, along with all other May and June exams that year were cancelled. The government announced that GCSE and A-level grades would be awarded through teachers' assessments based on mock exams, coursework and other available evidence,[71] moderated by a statistical standardisation model developed by Ofqual.[72] This is the first cancellation of GCSEs since they were introduced.

An algorithm for deciding grades was originally introduced by Ofqual, which got used for A-Level grades. However, this caused backlash,[73][74] causing the government to ultimately replace the algorithm with Center Assessed Grades for GCSEs on 17 August.[75]

In 2021, GCSEs, along with A-level and AS exams, were cancelled again due to the pandemic and replaced with teacher assessed grades.[76][77] The grades were decided based on previous mock exams, homework, classwork, and optional examinations set by Ofqual.[78]

Calls for reform and abolition

Support for scrapping GCSEs in England has increased because of the COVID-19 pandemic.[79] Rethinking Assessment was established in September 2020 to call for assessment reform in secondary education, including scrapping GCSEs. Members include multi-academy trusts including the Academies Enterprise Trust and Bohunt Academy Trust, independents schools including Eton College, Bedales School and St Paul's Girls' School, and Lord Baker of Dorking, the Conservative who introduced GCSEs as education secretary in 1986.[80][81]

In 2021, former Conservative prime minister John Major led calls by him and eight former education secretaries, both Conservative and Labour, for GCSEs to either be scrapped and replaced, reformed or reviewed. Former education secretaries who called for them to be scrapped included Lord Baker, Lord Blunkett and Alan Johnson, while those calling for changes, reforms or a review included Major and former education secretaries Baroness Morgan of Cotes, Justine Greening, Charles Clarke and Ruth Kelly. Former Labour schools minister David Miliband also called for them to be scrapped, as did Conservative MP Robert Halfon, who chairs the Education Select Committee in the House of Commons.[82] Support for scrapping GCSEs also came from teaching unions,[79] including the National Education Union which is the largest teaching union in the country,[83] and a group of centrist one-nation Conservative MPs.[84] Schools Minister Nick Gibb rejected the proposal, thinking that "it would be a huge mistake to abolish the tried and tested GCSEs".[85]

In 2022, former Labour prime minister Tony Blair called for GCSEs and A-Levels to be scrapped and replaced by a new qualification and an examination based on the International Baccalaureate. Before the age of 16, pupils would be assessed through pupil assessment. From 16 to 18, they would be assessed continually on their subject knowledge and skills through multiple methods including examination, which would determine their final grade.[86] Blair declined enacting a similar proposal when he was prime minister.[87]

See also


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