What are GCSEs?

GCSE stands for General Certificate of Secondary Education.

GCSE examinations are taken by most pupils at the end of compulsory school education (year 11)in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. GCSE provides a uniform framework for assessment, with all candidates in all subjects graded from A* to G (with U being the result given to those whose papers are "ungraded"). Scotland has a different system altogether, with examinations called Standard grades, Higher grades and Advanced Higher grades, which are taken at different ages. Taking GCSEs is not compulsory, and it is up to schools whether to enter pupils for examinations.

There are around 50 different GCSE subjects, alongside 14 Vocational GCSEs which have recently been introduced to replace Part 1 GNVQs (General National Vocational Qualifications). Each GCSE subject is assessed by formal examinations or by coursework, or by a combination of the two.

GCSE represents Key Stage 4 of the National Curriculum, and although GCSE provides a uniform framework of assessment, in fact it represents two "levels" of the National Qualifications Framework (Levels 1 and 2). Grades A to C are Level 2 (intermediate) qualifications, while grades D to G are Level 1 (foundation) qualifications.

Depending on their expected grades, pupils in certain subjects will be entered for the "higher" or the "foundation" tier GCSE exams. Pupils expected to achieve grades A to D take the higher tier and can achieve any grade; pupils taking the foundation tier can only achieve grade C or below. Most subjects have these two tiers, but some (art, music, physical education and history) have none, while mathematics has three.

GCSE syllabuses are set, examinations administered and certificates awarded by five "awarding bodies" or Examination Boards: AQA, CCEA; Edexcel; OCR; WJEC. The exam boards are overseen by three regulatory authorities: in England – Ofqual (Office of the Qualifications and Examinations Regulator); in Wales – DCELLS (Department for Children, Education, Lifelong Learning and Skills; in Northern Ireland:CCEA (Council for the Curriculum, Examinations and Assessments).

The awarding bodies decide on a "Common Timetable" each year, so as to co-ordinate the scheduling of examinations. The Common Timetable usually runs from late May to late June each year. Arrangements for resits are made individually by each body.


GCSEs were introduced in 1986, replacing the previous O Level and CSE systems by merging them together.

General Certificate of Education Ordinary Level examinations (O Levels) had existed since the early 1950s, but were only available in grammar schools and private schools, and as such were only taken by the top 20 per cent of the school population by academic ability. The majority of school pupils, who attended secondary modern schools, left without any formal qualifications.

The mid-1960s saw the introduction of the Certificate of Secondary Education (CSE) as a qualification available to all, with its grade 1 equivalent to grades C and above at O Level, and its grade 4 pitched as the "average" attainment for the age group.

However, throughout its life, the CSE qualification was seen as inferior to O Level. It was administered on a regional basis, while O and A Levels were administered by examination boards with links to universities. Part of the CSE system was assessed within schools, which generated criticisms of low standards. Furthermore, the existence of two not-quite parallel systems undermined public and employer understanding of the nature and value of qualifications.

Throughout the 1970s, there was considerable pressure to merge the systems – particularly since the raising of the age of compulsory education to 16 considerably increased the number of pupils in a position to obtain qualifications. Under the Callaghan Labour government, Education Secretary Shirley Williams (now Baroness Williams of Crosby) took the political decision to proceed with a merged "GCSE" system, but the election of the Conservatives in 1979 postponed any action for several years.

In 1984, Conservative Education Secretary Sir Keith Joseph decided to proceed with a merger, on the premise that the new qualifications should be based on general and subject-specific criteria approved by himself; that the O Level exam boards should take responsibility for carrying forward the O Level A to C grade standards into the new scale, while the CSE boards should do the same for grades D to G, which were to be based on CSE grades 2 to 5 respectively; and that most subjects should be examined through tiered papers focusing on different parts of the grade scale, ensuring that each grade reflected "positive achievement" on appropriate tasks, rather than degrees of failure.

The first GCSE courses began in 1986, and the first examinations were taken in 1988. The inclusion of coursework in GCSE assessments was a novel innovation, which many teachers at the time regarded with scepticism. The acceptable level of coursework in courses was capped by the School Examinations and Assessment Council (a predecessor of the QCA) in 1991.

Growing concern about the relevance of academic studies and a lack of technical skills in young people led in 2002 to the introduction of Vocational GCSEs. Despite the vocational training system having been overhauled as recently as 1994, with the introduction of GNVQs, the Government decided that low take-up and poor perception of courses relative to GCSE merited action comparable to that taken with regard to O Level and CSE in the 1980s.

In 2007, the overall A* – C pass rate for all UK entries increased from 62.4 per cent to 63.3 per cent, with one in five students achieving the highest A grade. There was, however, a decline in the number of pupils taking core subjects such as geography and history and modern languages, and a marked rise in the number of non-academic/vocational qualifications being taken, particularly by pupils from the poorest backgrounds or those attending schools in disadvantaged areas.

Consequently, the new Coalition government introduced the English Baccalaureate as a "performance measure" in the 2010 performance tables published in January 2011. The measure shows where pupils have attained a C grade or above across a core of academic subjects – English, mathematics, history or geography, the sciences and a language.

The intention is to allow parents and pupils to see how schools are performing in key academic subjects and to encourage schools to give all pupils, including those from the poorest backgrounds, the opportunity to study academic subjects.

Although the English Baccalaureate is not a qualification, the Government has said it is currently looking into the possibility of issuing certificates and will confirm its decision "in due course".


Although the government remains committed to the GCSE examination system, recent years have seen growing numbers questioning its continued relevance.

Most employers and educational institutions do not in fact regard grades A to G as a pass, but only grades A to C. This situation, like that which was replaced under O Levels and CSEs, leaves many pupils with qualifications of questionable value. Indeed, it is argued in some quarters that the single grade scale for GCSE and the requirement for all subjects to be comparable in terms of grades unfairly favours academically able children, without recognising different aptitudes. The recent move towards Vocational GCSEs aims to address this, ironically by reintroducing some of the complexity that GCSEs initially eliminated.

At the other end of the scale, headteachers in many independent and grammar schools complain that GCSEs do not stretch their more able pupils. "It's like Boy Scouts collecting badges. One has to ask what the educational value of it is", the headmaster of Eton, Tony Little, complained in August 2003, announcing that from 2004, Eton students would bypass GCSE altogether and go straight to AS Level.

Perhaps the most controversial issue relating to GCSE is the longstanding contention that exams are too easy and are getting easier – a claim given credence by the fact that overall pass rates have increased every year since GCSEs were introduced.

Each year's exam results are followed by public and media allegations that the "absolute standard" which GCSE grades are intended to represent (in contrast to the "quota" grading system of the previous exam systems) is being degraded. The Government and most teachers maintain that rising pass rates are consequences of improving teaching methods, but opponents disagree, claiming that it is possible to pass GCSE exams without reaching many basic levels of educational and vocational attainment.

With more and more pupils staying in education after 16, the value of exams at that age is increasingly questioned. In 2003 a Working Group chaired by former chief inspector of schools Mike Tomlinson was charged with developing a comprehensive framework for 14 to 19 education. The Tomlinson report published in October 2004 proposed a series of radical changes, including replacing GCSEs, A Levels and vocational qualifications with a single diploma available at four levels – entry, foundation, intermediate and advanced.

The Government, however, rejected this proposal and in its 2005 '14-19' White Paper chose instead to focus on reforms to vocational qualifications and "build on the strengths of the existing education system". In addition a review of the secondary curriculum was commissioned, followed by a national consultation which took place between February and April 2007.

The first teaching of the new secondary curriculum was scheduled for Autumn 2008, with the first teaching of the revised GCSE beginning in Autumn 2009.

In January 2011 the Education Secretary, Michael Gove, announced there would be another "major review" of the National Curriculum in England at both primary and secondary levels. The plan is to begin teaching the new curriculum in maintained schools from September 2013.

Mr Gove's introduction of the English Baccalaureate proved to be somewhat controversial, particularly with the teaching unions. The Education Secretary said the 2011 GCSE results had shown the EBac was "reversing the long-term drift away from" history, geography and languages which were "bouncing back to the levels of a decade ago." He claimed the EBac was "hugely increasing the proportion of pupils taking the core academic subjects most valued by universities and employers."

However, the general secretary of the National Union of Teachers, Christine Blower, dismissed his claims as "utterly unfounded" and warned: "This new measure will undermine broad education by driving schools towards a narrow range of options for young people…… There is a very real danger that some young people will be directed away from subjects that would best support their developing aptitudes and ambitions."

The NASUWT was equally concerned. General secretary Chris Keates described the EBac as "a classic example of the relentlessly elitist approach of the Coalition to education". It was "wholly inappropriate, overly prescriptive" and she was particularly concerned that "important subjects such as music, art, RE and IT have not only been downgraded but those who teach them are facing redundancy."

Voice, the union for education professionals, thought the English Baccalaureate was narrow and pointless. General secretary, Philip Parkin, said: "Whether as a performance measure or an actual certificate of achievement, it has no point."  He suggested that instead of promoting the EBac, the Government should "look at how the whole assessment system could be transformed, with more teacher and ongoing assessment, a greater range and type of subjects on offer to inspire pupils and parity between the vocational and the academic."

The Education Committee's report on the introduction of the EBac suggested that this "mainly negative response" might have been avoided if there had been a proper consultation beforehand with teachers and other interested parties. .The committee urged the Government in future to "give appropriate notice of, and undertake consultation with key stakeholders and the wider public on, any new performance or curriculum measures."

The committee also thought the Ebac – "the hybrid of a certificate and a performance measure, named after a qualification" – was misnamed. "It is not a baccalaureate, and as it stands the name can therefore be misleading to parents, professionals and pupils," the committee stated.


Significant increases in separate sciences and the gap between girls and boys reaches a new peak as overall improvements at GCSE slow down

This year’s GCSE results show an increase in the number of students taking separate sciences. 

The entry for Physics is up 16.4%, Chemistry 16.2%, and Biology 14.2%, taking the subject totals to 140,183, 141,724, and 147,904 respectively. These figures build on the increases in previous years that were reflected in the surge in the separate sciences at A-level.
Girls are moving to these subjects at a faster rate than boys. And at the higher grades they are increasing their lead – a different pattern to A-levels in which boys are closing the achievement gap in the sciences. 

When looking at all GCSE subjects together, the gap between boys and girls at A*-A is at its widest at 6.7 percentage points (26.5% of girls achieving A*-A compared to 19.8% of boys) since the top grade was introduced in 1994. 

The overall entry for GCSE is down 4.2% to 5.15 million and the cohort size for 16 year olds is also down, by 2.62%. 

Performance at GCSE improved by 0.6 percentage points at grades A*-A (from 22.6% in 2010 to 23.2% in 2011), which is down on last year’s increase of 1 percentage point. Performance at grades A*-C increased by 0.8 percentage points (from 69.0% in 2010 to 69.8% in 2011), also down on last year’s increase of 2 percentage points. 

In English, the proportion of students achieving a grade A*-C has gone up by 0.7 percentage points (from 64.7% in 2010 to 65.4% in 2011). In Mathematics, it has increased by 0.4 percentage points (from 58.4% to 58.8%).

The shift in entry away from Modern Foreign Languages continues. The entry for French is down 13.2%, (from 177,618 in 2010 to 154,221 in 2011), down 13.2% in German (from 70,169 in 2010 to 60,887 in 2011) and down 2.5% in Spanish (from 67,707 in 2010 to 66,021 in 2011).
Between 2009 and 2010 Spanish rose by 0.9%. This is the first reported decrease in Spanish since 2006. Between 2006 and 2010, entry for Spanish rose by 9%.

The number of students taking GCSEs in History and Geography declined in 2011, by 1.2% (from 221,281 in 2010 to 218,588 in 2011) and 7.1% (from 194,599 in 2010 to 180,737 in 2011) respectively.

Design and Technology (D&T) and Information and Communication Technology (ICT) also saw declines in the number of entries. D&T saw a 11.8% drop (from 287,701 in 2010 to 253,624 in 2011) and ICT a 22.8% fall (from 61,022 in 2010 to 47,128 in 2011).

Entries in Religious Studies show a significant increase of 17.6%, with over 33,000 more students taking a GCSE Full Course making the total 221,974 in 2011. Part of this increase may be explained by movement from the GCSE Short Course to the Full Course. 

GCSE Short Course 

The number of students taking a GCSE Short Course continues to fall. In 2010, 488,156 students took the qualification, compared to 425,422 in 2011, a drop of 12.9%. Last year there was a 4.1% decline. 

At grade A*-C, the Short Course results show a decline of 0.8 percentage points from 54.5% to 53.7%. At these grades, girls’ performance stayed the same at 61.4% whereas that of boys declined 1.7 percentage points from 47.3% to 45.6%. 

Religious Studies remains the most popular GCSE Short Course with 257,793 entries, although this a decrease of 7.9% compared with 2010. This decrease, however, is more than balanced by the increase in the entry for the Religious Studies Full Course.

GCSE Double Award

There has been acceleration in the rate at which students are moving away from the GCSE Double Award, even when taking into account the withdrawal of two subjects (Art and Construction). Figures for 2010 showed a decline of 20.6%. This year’s statistics show a decline of 33.4% from 83,816 in 2010 to 55,820 in 2011. The performance in these qualifications at grades A*A*-CC increased by 3.7 percentage points from 56.3% in 2010 to 60.0% in 2011.

Source: Joint Council for Qualifications – August 2011


“The rise of biology, physics, and chemistry is welcome news as is the increased performance in maths and English. However, the continuing decline of modern foreign languages and the growing divide in performance between boys and girls at the top grades are worrying trends."

Dr Jim Sinclair, Director of the Joint Council for Qualifications, commenting on GCSE results – August 2011

"While it is encouraging to see the rising uptake in maths and single sciences, it is worrying that once again there are falling numbers studying languages. Through the English Baccalaureate, we want to make sure all pupils have the chance to study the core academic subjects which universities and employers demand."

Schools minister Nick Gibb commenting on GCSE results – August 2011

“For all young people to be able to reach their full potential we need to rid ourselves of this idea that an education system familiar to those who attended school towards the middle of the last century is the only way forward. Despite what the Government may claim, many vocational qualifications and courses are of good quality and are equally important as, for instance, the English Baccalaureate much favoured by the Secretary of State."

NUT general secretary Christine Blower – August 2011

“What really frustrates teachers is the repeated interference from government ministers, resulting in constant flux and moving goalposts. Education is not a game of football – it’s a preparation for life. In spite of promises made by government that autonomy is being handed back to teachers and schools, there is still an appetite among ministers to control everything rigidly from the 'centre.' "

Voice senior professional officer Ian Toone – August 2011