GCSEs are the main qualification taken by 14 to 16-year-olds, but are available to anyone of any age. You can take GCSEs in a wide range of academic and 'applied' or work-related subjects at school or your local Further Education (FE) college.
What GCSEs are
GCSE stands for General Certificate of Secondary Education. They are highly valued by schools, colleges and employers.
The qualification mainly involves studying the theory of a subject, together with some investigative work, while some subjects also involve practical work. They are usually studied full-time at school or college, taking five terms to complete.
GCSEs are available in more than 60 subjects and vocational areas.
How you are assessed
With GCSEs, you are assessed mainly on written exams and elements you complete throughout the course, such as:
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
The Council for Curriculum, Examinations and Assessment (CCEA) has responsibility for the regulation of qualifications in Northern Ireland.
In summer 2019, the grading for all CCEA GCSE qualifications changed. There is now a C* grade and less people will receive an A*.
Other examining bodies, such as AQA, OCR, Pearson or Eduqas use a number-graded structure for GCSE qualifications, where nine is the highest grade and one is the lowest.
Depending on what examining body you’re sitting, you may receive both letters and numbers in your GCSE results, so it's important to understand how these grades compare.
For more information, visit a guide to changes in GCSE grading.
There are no changes to A level (GCE) grading.
What GCSEs can lead to
Getting a GCSE can lead to a number of different openings, for example:
- further study
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 comparable qualifications.
Applied GCSEs are designed to provide a more 'hands-on' approach and encourage you to apply your knowledge and understanding of a subject in a practical way. They are comparable in size to two traditional GCSEs.
These GCSEs are assessed to the same standard as the more academic GCSEs, although the work you produce will have a more practical emphasis. You will carry out your own investigations and will often produce a portfolio of work.
These GCSEs can lead to similar progression paths as traditional GCSEs.
Short course GCSEs
Short course GCSEs are designed to give you more options about what and how you study. They are comparable to half a full GCSE, but the standard is the same as a full GCSE. They can be taken in half the time which is about three terms. However, if you learn more slowly than others, you can spread a short course out over the same length as a traditional GCSE.
Short courses also allow more able students to take extra subjects, like a second language. They can also be a useful option if your timetable at school or college prevents you from taking a full GCSE.
These can lead to similar routes as traditional GCSEs, however, if you want to go on to do A levels, some subjects may require that you have a full GCSE in that subject.
If your exams don't go well
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. There is also an Appeals process which is administered by the awarding organisation, and if necessary, the independent Examinations Appeals Board.
If your GCSE is made up of modules, you can choose to resit individual modules. Only one re-sit is permitted per unit. The highest mark will be taken from your different attempts.
Help and advice
Contact your local FE college about the range of applied and short course GCSEs on offer.
If you're still at school, speak to your teacher.