OCR: About GCSE, What is GCSE? Who can appear and benefits of GCSE

The General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE) is an academic qualification awarded in a specified subject, generally taken in a number of subjects by students aged 14 − 16 in secondary education in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. The qualification is equivalent to a Level 1 or Level 2 (grade depending) Key Skills Qualification (In Scotland, the equivalent is the Standard Grade.). Some students may decide to take one or more GCSEs before or after they sit the others, and people may apply for GCSEs at any point either internally through an institution or externally. The educational systems of other British territories, such as Gibraltar, and South Africa also offer the qualification, as supplied by the same examination boards. The international version of the GCSE is the IGCSE, which can be taken anywhere in the world, and which includes additional options relating to coursework and the language the qualification is pursued in:

Prior education to GCSE level is generally required of students wishing to pursue A-level courses or the International Baccalaureate. GCSE exams were introduced as the compulsory school-leavers'examinations in the late 1980S (the first exams being taken in the summer of 1988) by the Conservative Party government, replacing the Certificate of Secondary Education (CSE) and GCE Ordinary Level (O-Level) examinations. In September 2012, Michael Gove as Secretary of State for Education, announced plans to scrap GCSE exams for core subjects in England and to introduce a replacement qualification in 2015 called the English Baccalaureate Certificate. In February 2013 the Education Secretary Michael Gove announced the Certificate part would not go ahead, and that GCSEs would remain.

Examination boards

There are now five examination boards offering GCSEs:

  • Assessment and Qualifications Alliance (AQA)
  • Oxford, Cambridge and RSA Examinations (OCR)
  • Edexcel
  • Welsh Joint Education Committee (WJEC)
  • Council for the Curriculum, Examinations & Assessment (CCEA)

While all boards are regulated by the Office of the Regulators of Qualifications (Ofqual) -a non-departmental public body sponsored by the Department for Education-the boards are self-sufficient organisations. Traditionally there were a larger number of regional exam boards but changes in legislation allowed schools to use any board before a series of mergers reduced the number to five. The Joint Council for Qualifications (JCQ) acts as a single voice for the awarding bodies and assists them to create common standards, regulations and guidance.

Education Structure

In secondary schools, GCSE courses are taken in a variety of subjects, which are usually decided by the students themselves in Year 9 (age 13 − 14), however, more increasingly students from many schools in England are deciding in Year 8 to study their chosen subjects in Year 9 raising the question as to whether the exams are becoming easier to pass. Typically though, study of chosen subjects begins at the start of Year 10 (age 14 − 15), although some subjects start earlier, for example Maths, English and Science, mainly because these courses are too long to be taught within the traditional 2 years; final examinations are then taken at the end of Year 11 (age 15 − 16). In Northern Ireland, these age groups are designated as one Year higher, so that Year 9 elsewhere is equivalent to Year 10 in Northern Ireland, and so forth. The number of subjects a student studies at GCSE level can vary. Usually somewhere between eight and ten subjects are studied, though it is not uncommon for more, or fewer, subjects to be studied.

In secondary schools, GCSEs are compulsory in the core subjects and are more common qualification taken by 14 − 16-year-old students. The only requirement is that in state schools English, mathematics, science and physical education are studied during Key Stage 4 (the GCSE years of school). In England and Northern Ireland, students following the national curriculum (compulsory in state schools) must also study some form of information communication technology (ICT), and citizenship. In Wales, Welsh (as a first or second language) must also be studied. These subjects do not have to be taught for any examination (or even be discrete lessons), though it is normal for at least English, mathematics and science to be studied to GCSE level.

For the reasons above, virtually all students take GCSEs in English, mathematics and science. In addition, many schools also require that students take English literature, at least one modern foreign language, at least one design and technology subject, religious education (often a short, or ‘half’ course), and ICT (though increasingly this is the DiDA or OCR National, rather than the GCSE). Students can then fill the remainder of their timetable (normally totalling ten different subjects) with their own choice of subjects (see list below). Short Course GCSEs (worth half a regular GCSE) or other qualifications, such as BTECs, can also be taken.


At the end of the two-year GCSE course, candidates receive a grade for each subject that they have sat. The pass grades, from highest to lowest, are: A (Star) (pronounced ‘A-star’ ), A, B, C, D, E, F and G. Grade U (ungraded/unclassified) is issued when students have not achieved the minimum standard to achieve a pass grade; the subject is then not included on their final certificate.

GCSEs are part of the National Qualifications Framework. A GCSE at grades D-G is a Level 1 qualification, while a GCSE at grades A (Star) -C is a Level 2 qualification. As one would expect, GCSEs at A (Star) -C (Level 2) are much more desirable and insisted on by many employers and educational institutions. Level 1 qualifications are required to advance to Level 2 qualifications. Likewise, Level 2 qualifications are required to advance to Level 3 qualifications.

Students can also receive an X grade which signifies that they have only completed part of the course or key elements such as coursework are missing and so an appropriate grade cannot be given. A Q (query) grade means that the clarification is needed by the exam board, whom the school should contact. Both X and Q are normally temporary grades and replaced with a regular grade A (Star) -G or U when the situation has been resolved.

X grades are also very rarely used by some exam boards to indicate that the examiner found offending material, usually hate speech, within one of the exam papers that a student took. In some cases this may cause the student to lose all marks for that particular paper, and occasionally for the entire course. X grades are most common in subjects where ethical issues are raised and/or there is a question which requires the student to express their personal opinion on a scientific/religious view. Notable areas where this can occur are Biology and Religious Education/Studies.