Certificate of Secondary Education

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The Certificate of Secondary Education (CSE) was an academic qualification awarded in England, Wales, and Northern Ireland. This qualification should not be confused with the Indian Certificate of Secondary Education which is the school leaving qualification in India.[1] Also, in some African and former British colonial countries (such as, for example, Kenya) there is to this day a qualification named Certificate of Secondary Education based on the original and former British variant.[2] Also, the CSE should not be confused with the African qualification CSEE (Certificate of Secondary Education Examination).[3]

It was introduced to provide a qualification available to all schoolchildren distinct from the GCE (O-Levels) that were aimed at the more able pupils, mostly those at grammar and independent school (rather than secondary modern schools) aiming for places at a university.[4] Before the introduction of the CSE, the majority of those schoolchildren at secondary modern schools did not take O-Level examinations and so left school without any qualifications at all.[4] However, over time and gradually, counties frequently had introduced their own examinable qualifications for the bulk of Secondary Modern School pupils who left in 'Form Four' (at 15 years of age). For example, the county of Monmouthshire in Wales awarded the Monmouthshire Certificate in Education.

There were five pass grades in its grading system ranging from grades 1 to 5, with grades 2 to 3 being recognised with equivalence to the three (later two: D and E) lowest O-Level pass grades (of which there were originally six, later five, A, B, C, D and E).

Achieving CSE grade 1 was equivalent to achieving an O level in the subject where the student may have reasonably gained an A, B or C grade had they taken an O-level course of study in the same subject. Gaining a CSE Grade 1 therefore implied that that student should have followed an O level course in that subject. This often caused frustration for such pupils wishing to progress to A-level, who (due to incompatibilities in the syllabi) would need to take a 1-year O-level conversion course in the Lower Sixth and thus waste a year gaining a qualification they theoretically already held.

Equivalent United Kingdom qualifications, at the time of comparison[5]
GCSE Grade O Level Grade CSE Grade
1988 1994 Pre-1975 (numeric) Pre-1975 (alphabetic) 1975 onwards 1965 onwards
A A* 1 A A 1
A 2 B
B 3 C B
B 4
C 5 D C
C 6 E
D 7 F D 2
E D 8 G E 3
F E U (ungraded) 4
G F 9 H 5
U (unclassified) U (ungraded)
  • Blue background – certificate and qualification awarded.
  • Red background – no certificate or qualification awarded.

However, the range of courses for CSE was wider than that for the O-level and included many vocational subjects, such as car maintenance which were not available at O-level. As the comprehensive schools gradually replaced secondary modern schools, pupils could increasingly take a mixture of CSEs and O-levels until finally the examinations were merged with the new GCSE certification courses.

CSEs and O-levels are the predecessor examinations of the General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE).[4]

Percentage of School-Leavers in England obtaining 'n' O-level(A-C) or CSE grade 1 pass[6]
individual awards 0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8+ 1 or more 5 or more
1982 10.6 11.4 6.8 5.0 4.4 4.4 4.5 4.5 12.7 52.6 26.1
1983 9.6 11.4 7.0 5.3 4.7 4.3 4.5 4.7 12.8 53.8 26.2


For subjects where an equivalent O-level paper existed approximately 36% of the pupils entered for either exam sat the O-Level, the remainder (64%) sat the CSE paper eg.

English O-Level and CSE Mathematics entrants 1977-9[7] [8]
Year Pupils O-Level Maths Candidates CSE Maths Candidates Total Candidates  % Maths Papers: O-Level  % Maths Papers: CSE  % Pupils entered for Maths
1977 751,070 217,560 392,020 609,580 35.7 64.3 81.1
1978 768,460 230,660 414,950 645,610 35.7 64.3 84
1979 781,240 245,500 438,220 683,720 35.9 64.1 87.5

See also[edit]