Certificate of Secondary Education

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The Certificate of Secondary Education (CSE) was a subject-specific qualification family awarded in both academic and vocational fields in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. CSE examinations were held in the years 1965 to 1987. This qualification should not be confused with the Indian Certificate of Secondary Education which is a school-leaving qualification in India.[1] Also, in some African and former British colonial countries (such as, Kenya) there is a qualification named the 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]


The 1960 Beloe Report was commissioned to look into a new exam which became the CSE.

The CSE was introduced to provide a set of qualifications available to a broader range of schoolchildren and distinct from the GCE (O-Levels), that were aimed at the academically more able pupils, mostly those at grammar and independent schools (rather than secondary modern schools).[4] CSEs were available in both academic and vocational subjects, incorporated controlled assessment in addition to examination, and examination questions were typically offered in a shorter and more structured form than those found on an equivalent O-Level paper.

Before the introduction of the CSE, the majority of schoolchildren at secondary modern schools did not take externally set end of school examinations, and so left school without any nationally recognised qualifications.[4] Though the introduction of the CSE did not, of itself, resolve the issue as the majority still left at the end of the fourth year without sitting an external qualification. By the late 1960s and early 1970s, some counties had introduced their own examinable qualifications for those leaving at the end of the fourth year. For example, the county of Monmouthshire in Wales awarded the Monmouthshire Certificate in Education.

The majority of secondary modern pupils continued to leave without qualifications until the raising of the school leaving age to 16, in 1973, made a fifth year of secondary education compulsory.

A number of GCE and CSE exam boards experimented with offering a combined O-Level and CSE examination, in the 1970s, for borderline candidates. The papers contained questions limited to areas of the syllabus that were common to both an O-Level and CSE.

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 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]


There were five pass grades in its grading system ranging from grades 1 to 5. A CSE grade 1 was equivalent to achieving an O level grade of C or higher, in the same subject, while a 4 was obtainable by someone of average / median ability.[5] Gaining a CSE Grade 1 implied that the student could 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.

Though no formal requirements existed, grades 2 to 3 were possibly set to be equivalent to the two (D and E) lowest O-Level pass grades.[citation needed]

Approximate equivalences for GCSE, O-Level and CSE grades
GCSE Grade O-Level Grade CSE Grade
from 2017 a
Northern Ireland
from 2019 b
Wales from 1994
England, NI 1994–2019 c
1988–1993 1975–1987 d 1965–1987
9 A* A* A A 1
8 A
6 B B B B
5 C*
4 C
3 D D D D 2
E E E E 3
F F F U 4
G G G 5
  • Notes:
    •   GCSE grades 9 to 4 (A* to C) – Certificate and qualification awarded. At GCSE, considered a 'standard pass', and awards a qualification at Level 2 of the RQF.
    •   GCSE grades 3 to 1 (D to G) – Certificate and qualification awarded. At GCSE, awards a qualification at Level 1 of the RQF.
    •   U: ungraded/unclassified – no certificate or qualification awarded
    • ^a 9–1 grades phased in by subject between 2017 and 2019 in England
    • ^b New A*–G grades in Northern Ireland from 2019[6]
    • ^c A*–G grades as used in Wales since 1994, and in England and Northern Ireland between 1994 and 2019
    • ^d Before 1975, each exam board had its own grading system (some used letters, others numbers). Grades were only given to schools and not recorded on students' certificates

Percentage of School-Leavers in England obtaining 'n' O-level (A-C) or CSE grade 1 pass[7]
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


The 1978 Waddell Report, when comparing O-Level and CSE entrants stated: "the O Level examination tending to be aimed at the upper 20 per cent of the full ability range and CSE catering for the next 40 per cent",[8] is partially supported by the statistics. For subjects where an equivalent O-level paper existed approximately 36% of the pupils entered for either exam, after 1976, sat the O-Level, the remainder (64%) sat the CSE paper. The proportion taking CSE exams increased following the raising of the minimum school leaving age to 16, in 1973, and the subsequent fall in the proportion sitting neither exam e.g.

English O-Level and CSE Mathematics entrants 1976-9[8] [9][10]
Year Pupils O-Level Maths Candidates CSE Maths Candidates Total Candidates % Maths Papers: O-Level % Maths Papers: CSE % Pupils entered for Maths
1974 74
1976 270,297 377,731 631,927 42.8 57.2
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

Exam Boards[edit]

The CSE syllabi, examinations and awards were originally made by 15 independent regional boards:[11]

In 1979, the neighbouring Metropolitan and Middlesex boards merged to form the London Regional Examinations Board.[12] The West Yorkshire and Lindsey and Yorkshire and Humberside boards also merged to form the Yorkshire and Humberside Regional Examinations Board in 1982.[11]

Unlike GCE and GCSE examinations, the participating schools did not have a choice of awarding body, but were required to use the designated local board. Unlike the GCE and GCSE boards, the CSE exam boards were composed of elected teachers and local authority representatives from each region.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "CISCE Board ICSE 10th Results 2015: CISCE.org ICSE class 10 th X exam results 2015 to be declared today at 11:30 AM | India News | Zee News".
  2. ^ "Kitale school tradition bestows honour on all".
  3. ^ "allAfrica.com: Tanzania: Form Four Results Out". Archived from the original on 2 March 2014.
  4. ^ a b c "The story of the General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE)". Qualifications and Curriculum Authority. Archived from the original on 14 September 2007. Retrieved 11 October 2008.
  5. ^ Geddes, Diana (27 January 1982). "Poor marks for maths teaching". The Times (London, England). No. 61142. The Times (London, England). The Times (London, England). Retrieved 12 September 2015.
  6. ^ CCEA (31 July 2017). "A Guide to Changes in GCSE Grading". ccea.org.uk. Retrieved 29 November 2017.
  7. ^ "O-LEVEL AND CSE STATISTICS 1982 AND 1983". Millbank Systems. Parliamentary Debates (Hansard). 20 December 1984. Retrieved 26 August 2015.
  8. ^ a b Waddell, James. "The Waddell Report – School Examinations". Education In England. London: Her Majesty's Stationery Office 1978. Archived from the original on 19 April 2015. Retrieved 4 September 2015.
  9. ^ "The Swann Report (1985) - Education for All". Educationengland. Archived from the original on 19 April 2015. Retrieved 22 August 2015.
  10. ^ "The Cockcroft Report (1982) - Mathematics counts". Education England. Archived from the original on 21 March 2014. Retrieved 22 August 2015.
  11. ^ a b Tattersall, Kathleen (2007). "A Brief History of Policies, Practices and Issues Relating to Comparability". In Newton, Paul; Baird, Jo-Anne; Goldstein, Harvey; Patrick, Helen; Tymms, Peter (eds.). Techniques for Monitoring the Comparability of Examination Standards (PDF). London: QCA. p. 89. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2 December 2013. Retrieved 30 April 2020.
  12. ^ "CSE Exam Records" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on 24 July 2008. Retrieved 7 August 2008.