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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' or work-related subjects.

GCSEs: what they are?

GCSE stands for General Certificate of Secondary Education. It's highly valued by schools, colleges and employers, which means that it 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, while 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. To achieve high grades, you will usually be expected to show good levels of attainment in reading and writing.

  • grades D-G are at level 1
  • grades A*-C are at level 2

The framework shows how different types of qualifications compare, in terms of the demands they place on learners.

What subjects are available?

GCSEs are available in more than 60 subjects and vocational areas. The applied subjects are related to a broad area of work, such as engineering or tourism.

You can also take some GCSEs as short courses. Your school or college can advise you about the subjects that are available to you.

How are you assessed?

With GCSEs, you are assessed mainly on written exams, plus elements of internal assessment that you complete throughout the course. Internal assessment can include:

  • projects
  • fieldwork
  • artwork
  • experiments
  • investigations

Different forms of assessment

Not all GSCEs are assessed in the same way:

  • art and design, for example, have more coursework and fewer exams
  • some GCSE courses are made up of units where 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 other subjects, 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 each year.


If you have taken a GCSE made up of units, your results slip may show a points score on the Uniform Mark Scale, or 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 papers leads to grades A*-D
  • foundation tier papers leads to grades C-G

The results are published in March and August each year.

What happens if your 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. If this is the case for you, speak to your teachers as soon as possible.


If your GCSE is made up of modules, you can choose to resit individual modules. 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. For revised GCSEs which are unitised, you are allowed only one chance to resit the unit.

Re-marks and recounts

If you think something may have gone wrong with marking your exam, your school or FE 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.

Where can your GCSEs take you?

Getting a GCSE can lead to a number of different openings, for example:

  • work
  • further study
  • 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. If you want to take a level 3 course, like an A level, you will 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.

Where can you go for advice?

Advice for young people

To find out more about the range of GCSEs on offer near you, speak to your teacher or contact your:

Advice for adult learners

For further information, advice and guidance for adult learners contact:

Changes to GCSEs

Most GCSEs have recently been revised. GCSE Maths, English, ICT and Sciences are currently being revised. The main change to GCSEs is the replacement of coursework with controlled assessment. Controlled assessment is a form of internal assessment and involves carrying out assessment tasks in a classroom or other supervised environment under varying levels of control.

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