General Certificate of Secondary Education
The General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE) is an academically rigorous, internationally recognised qualification awarded in a specified subject, generally taken in a number of subjects by pupils in secondary education in England, Wales and Northern Ireland over two years. One of the main changes to previous educational qualifications in the United Kingdom was to allow pupils to complete coursework during their two years of study, which was marked by their teachers and contributed to their final examination grade. There has been a move recently from doing coursework and modular examinations for part of the course when pupils would take exams throughout the course to an end of year exam after the two years of study. The exams are being revised to make them more difficult such as testing skills from a whole text in English instead of part of a text. Coursework has now been replaced by Controlled Assessments in certain subjects, in which the student completes a number of assessed pieces of work which will ultimately count towards their final examination grade in the specified subject. The Controlled Assessment component of the qualification is usually done under exam style conditions.
The qualification is equivalent to a Level 1 or Level 2 (grade depending) Key Skills Qualification (in Scotland, the equivalent is a National 5). Some pupils may decide to take one or more GCSEs before or after they sit the others, and people may apply to take GCSEs at any point either internally through an institution or externally.
The education systems of current and former British territories, such as Gibraltar, Nigeria and South Africa, also offer the qualification, as supplied by the same examination boards. Other former British colonies, such as Singapore and Zimbabwe, continue to use the O-level qualification. 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. All subjects completed in the fifth of the European Baccalaureate are generally equivalent to the GCSEs subjects.
Prior education to GCSE level is generally required of pupils wishing to pursue A Level courses or the BTEC Extended Diploma and International Baccalaureate. GCSE exams were introduced as the compulsory school-leavers' examinations by the government of the United Kingdom. GCSE examinations are typically taken at the age of 16 but may be taken at any age.
- 1 Structure
- 2 History and format
- 3 Special educational needs
- 4 Subjects
- 5 See also
- 6 References
- 7 Notes
In secondary schools, GCSE courses are taken in a variety of subjects. Typically, study of chosen subjects begins at the start of Year 10 (ages 14–15). Some subjects start earlier, for example Maths, English and Science, because these courses are too long to be taught within 2 years. Final examinations are taken at the end of Year 11 (ages 15–16).
In Northern Ireland, these age groups are designated as one year group higher, so that Year 9 elsewhere is equivalent to Year 10 in Northern Ireland, and so forth. The number of subjects a pupil 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. 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, pupils 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 pupils take GCSEs in English, mathematics and science. In addition, many schools also require that pupils 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 Nationals, rather than the GCSE). Pupils 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* (pronounced "A-star"), A, B, C, D, E, F and G. Grade U (ungraded/unclassified) signifies that a pupil achieved nothing worthy of credit, therefore no GCSE is awarded to the pupil in that subject.
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*–C is a Level 2 qualification. GCSEs at A*-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.
Pupils can also receive an X grade which signifies that they have completed only part of the course or that 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*-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 pupil took. In some cases this may cause the pupil 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 pupil to express his personal opinion on a scientific/religious view. Notable areas where this can occur are Biology and Religious Education/Studies.
In many subjects, there are two different 'Tiers' of examination offered:
- Higher, where pupils can achieve grades A*–D(E), or a U
- Foundation, where they can achieve grades C–G, or a U
If a candidate fails to obtain a Grade G on the Foundation Tier or a Grade D on the Higher tier they will fail the course and receive a U. Candidates who narrowly miss a Grade D on the Higher Tier, however, are awarded a Grade E. In modular subjects, pupils may mix and match tiers between units. In non-tiered subjects, such as History, the examination paper allows candidates to achieve any grade. Coursework and controlled assessment also always allows candidates to achieve any grade.
The GCSE Mathematics exam syllabus changed from a 3-Tier system — Foundation grades (D–G), Intermediate (grades B–E) and Higher (grades A*–C) — to the standard 2-Tier system described above.
|A*||A||B||C||D||E||F||G||U||A*+A||A*-C||Total Candidates (A*-U)|
UK GCSE Level grading classifications
Receiving five or more A*–C grades, including English and Maths, is often a requirement for taking A-levels and BTEC Level 3 at a sixth form college or at a further education college after leaving secondary school. Where the choice of A level is a subject taken at GCSE level, it is frequently required that the pupil has received a GCSE C grade minimum. Most universities typically require a C or better in English and Mathematics, regardless of a pupil's performance in their A-level, BTEC or Foundation Degree course after leaving school. Many pupils who fail to get a C in English and Mathematics will retake their GCSEs in those subjects at a later date, in order to take further education (A-levels or BTEC) at a sixth form college. As well as choosing to take A-Levels after GCSEs, pupils can also choose to do BTEC courses. Some pupils do them alongside A-Levels and they count for 1 or 2 A-Levels. However some pupils may go to a college to study only what is known as a BTEC Extended Diploma in one certain subject. This course is two years long and pupils can earn the necessary 3 A-Levels required to gain a university place. The reason some pupils decide to take a BTEC is because it allows them to focus solely on an area they are certain to go into in the future, often in a vocational and practical way.
In some subjects, one or more controlled assessment assignments may also be completed. Controlled assessment can contribute to anything from 10–60% of a pupil's final grade, with more practical subjects, such as design and technology (60%), art (60%), ICT (60%), music (60%) and English (40%) often having a heavier coursework element. The rest of a pupil's grade (normally the majority) is determined by their performance in examinations. These exams may either be terminal exams at the end of Year 11, a series of modular examinations or taken throughout the course, or a combination of the two. Pupils can sometimes resit modular examinations later in the course and attempt to improve their grade.
One positive to CA is that it can help to ease the stress of examination because pupils can earn a percentage of their final exam grade earlier in the year. The downside is that this means pupils have a greater workload to complete, sometimes having to produce a large amount of work for a minimal part of the overall grade. For example, in English a pupil may have to complete 4 pieces of coursework, each over a thousand words long, which individually only account for 5% of the grade. However, this varies between exam boards.
Controlled assessment was usually completed outside of lessons, however concerns about cheating have meant that more and more is now being completed in the classroom, under supervision. For many courses, including those in Economics, Science and History, a requirement is meanwhile that controlled assessment is completed in a controlled environment within schools. Design and Technology subjects also switch to the new, more controlled, environment, with time limits and restrictions on the variety of projects allowed. A governmental survey investigation shows that most teachers are deeply dissatisfied with controlled assessment.
There are now five examination boards offering GCSEs:
- Assessment and Qualifications Alliance (AQA)
- Oxford, Cambridge and RSA Examinations (OCR)
- Edexcel (Edexcel - London Examinations)
- Welsh Joint Education Committee (WJEC)
- Council for the Curriculum, Examinations & Assessment (CCEA)
While all boards are regulated by the government of the United Kingdom, 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.
Pupils receive the results of their GCSEs in the fourth week of August (the week after A Level results). CCEA publish their results on the Tuesday and the other examination boards publish theirs on the Thursday. Normally, pupils have to go to their school to collect their results, although Edexcel allow for the option of an online results service.
|This section needs additional citations for verification. (June 2012)|
There have been comments that the GCSE system is a dumbing down from the old GCE O-level system (as it took the focus away from the theoretical side of many subjects, and taught pupils about real-world implications and issues relating to ICT and citizenship)[by whom?]. In addition, GCSE grades have been rising for many years, which critics attribute to grade inflation. By comparing pupils' scores in the YELLIS ability test with their GCSE results within a period of approximately 20 years, Robert Coe found a general increase in results which ranges from 0.2 (Science) to 0.8 (Maths) of a GCSE grade. Only slightly more than half of pupils sitting GCSE exams achieve the 5 A* to C grades required for most forms of academic further education.
One of the important differences between previous educational qualifications (and the earlier grading of A-levels) and the later GCSE qualifications was supposed to be a move from norm-referenced marking to criterion-referenced marking. On a norm-referenced grading system, fixed percentages of candidates achieve each grade. With criterion-referenced grades, in theory, all candidates who achieve the criteria can achieve the grade. A comparison of a clearly norm-referenced assessment, such as the NFER Cognitive Ability Test or CAT, with GCSE grading seems to show an unexpected correlation, which challenges the idea that the GCSE is a properly criterion-based assessment.
In recent years, concerns about standards has led some public schools to go as far as to complement GCSEs with IGCSEs within their curriculum, and to take their pupils straight[not in citation given] to A-level or the BTEC. Other public schools, such as the Manchester Grammar School, are replacing the GCSEs with IGCSEs in which there is an option to do no coursework. The new Science syllabus has led to many public schools switching to the IGCSE Double Award syllabus.
In recent years, there were a number of complaints that GCSEs and GCE A-levels were marked unfairly (teachers and pupils also have the option to question exam results by signing up for re-marking procedures should they feel results don't reflect a pupil's ability and expectations or if, after having reviewed a (copy) of the exam script, detect a marking error), following a decision to change the grade boundaries. Recently for the first time in the entire history of the exams the proportion of all GCSEs awarded an A*-C grade fell.
Another incident includes a GCSE Maths exam paper where there were complaints about a particularly difficult question later named in the media as the 'Hannah's sweets' question. People complained that they found the question difficult and/or unintelligible. The complaints originated on Twitter, and then were reported on several media websites. However, after the situation calmed down, several teachers, experts and students delivered the solution to the question via the media.
Moreover, the publication of (supposedly inferior) "soft" subjects (e.g. Critical Thinking, General Studies etc.) and (supposedly superior) "academic" subjects (e.g. Mathematics, Sciences, Languages) for GCSEs and A-Levels by the universities of Oxford and Cambridge has created an on-going educational debate where, on the one hand, many educational experts would support this "division of importance" whereas, on the other hand, many head teachers would not only disagree but actually "oppose a move to solely traditional academic GCSE (and A-Level) subjects".
Also, the OECD has expressed its concerns over potential grade inflation of GCSEs and A-Levels in the UK in a published report where the OECD put forward the theory that exam boards may be competing for candidates by lowering standards to secure more entries despite the British government overseeing exam standards.
History and format
GCSEs were first taught in 1986 and first awarded in 1988. They were introduced to replace the CSE (Certificate of Secondary Education) and O-Level qualifications, which had suffered problems due to the two-tier nature of the system. Grade C of the GCSE was set at equivalent to O-Level Grade C and CSE Grade 1.
The table below compares the grading under the O Level / CSE system and GCSE system, at the time of its introduction:
|GCSE Grade||O Level Grade||CSE Grade|
|Pre-1975 (numeric)||Pre-1975 (alphabetic)||1975 onwards|
|A / A*(see below)||1||A||A||1|
|U (unclassified)||U (ungraded)|
- Blue background – certificate and qualification awarded.
- Red background – no certificate or qualification awarded.
The format of the GCSE has remained basically the same since its inception, though many minor changes have been made.
The A* grade was introduced to distinguish the very top end of achievement, although the threshold for achieving an A* has varied considerably over the past, coming down as low as 47% in an AQA Business Studies GCSE paper.
Initially, most exams had two tiers: Higher, offering grades A-E (A*-E), and Basic, offering Grades F-G. The Higher tier was later modified to cover grades A*-D, while the Basic tier was renamed Foundation and now covered grades C-G. In addition, an 'allowed' Grade E was introduced to the Higher tier for candidates narrowly missing a Grade D.
For many years, Maths was an exception, having three tiers: Higher (grades A*–C), Intermediate (grades B–E) and Basic/Foundation (grades D–G). However, Maths then moved to the standard two tier system.
An alternative GCSE format was the Vocational GCSE (VGCSE), which encouraged pupils to take the work-related route and included courses such as Engineering and Manufacture, Applied Business, ICT, and Leisure and Tourism. Later on, the word 'Vocational' was dropped and a former Vocational GCSE is now known simply as a GCSE.
Science GCSEs were overhauled in over the past years. Pupils studying for two Science GCSEs now study the single Science GCSE (known as core science) and then one of two complementary GCSEs: Additional Science GCSE (which has a more academic focus) or Applied Science GCSE (which has a more vocational focus). Candidates now receive separate grades for each of their Science GCSEs.
GCSE examinations in state education are taken officially in the summer, though many schools take mocks beforehand. GCSE examination results are received on a specified date in the summer, and due to this, the examinations are always taken near the end of the academic year (unless in private education). GCSEs are externally marked examinations, taken between April and July, unless a pupil has specific reasons to be entitled to extension of time.
There were further changes to the English GCSEs. Instead of the current system where (virtually) all pupils take English and the vast majority also take English Literature, pupils will take English Language and English Literature together or just English on its own, which will effectively be a hybrid of the other two GCSEs.
The youngest pupil to gain a GCSE is home-educated Arran Fernandez, who took GCSE Mathematics at the age of five, gaining grade D, the highest available at Foundation Tier at that time. He also became the youngest ever pupil to gain an A* grade, also for GCSE Mathematics. The current record for the youngest pupil to gain an A* grade is held by Thomas Barnes.
The leading examining body, AQA (formally known as the Assessment and Qualifications Alliance) had proposed amendments to the present format of GCSEs and it has said the marking system is the purpose of its changes and these are intended to revise the method used for grading the examinations set at GCSE level. The improvements that the government in the United Kingdom had decided are going to happen and they will be the focus of its revision plan that is aimed at giving a more perfect structure to England's exam system. However, there are some problems with revising exams are marked, meaning that the proportion of candidates who have the opportunity to gain the best grades will fall.
The executive manager and Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of the Office of Qualifications and Examinations Regulation Glenys Stacey explained further to this point that the way that they will be taking the slant on the first year candidates will begin sitting the revised version that it is meant taking great consideration towards the evidence of numbers. By these means it is expected to be more straightforward when determining where the grade positions are going to appear in the framework having the purpose that will be followed when the method used for recording the marks in grade tables giving further clarity to teachers and candidates about the revisions to the marking system used at the moment so that the appearance of the grade tables when submitted reflects the changes. This will make sure that the year group pupils are not disadvantaged or advantaged because of the introduction of the new qualifications, and will provide some certainty about what to expect at this time of significant change. Brian Lightman, the head of the Association of School and College Leaders, gave this point: "Harder exams in themselves do not lead to higher standards. Excellent teaching and clear leadership are what enable pupils to achieve more."
Modular VS Linear Controversy:
The Conservative Party under Prime Minister David Cameron initiated reforms for A Levels and GCSEs to change from the current modular to a linear structure. British Examination Boards (Edexcel, AQA and OCR) regulated and accredited by the government of the United Kingdom responded to the government's reform announcements by modifying syllabi of several A Level and GCSE  subjects. However, the Labour Party and in particular the Member of Parliament Tristram Hunt announced that it will halt and reverse the reforms and maintain the modular A-Level and GCSE system. In addition, the Labour Party, Tristram Hunt and the current modular GCSE and A-Level system are supported and promoted by the University of Oxford and by the University of Cambridge.
Statistics released by London’s Poverty Profile found overall GCSE attainment in London to be greater than the rest of England. 39% of pupils in Inner London and 37% in Outer London did not get five GCSEs at A* to C, compared with 42% in the rest of England. Also, according to an ITV News report, UK students tend to outperform Jersey students on GCSE examinations.
The declining number of pupils studying foreign languages in the UK has been a major concern of educational experts for many years. Paul Steer, the Exam Board Chief of the British exam board OCR recently expressed that "unless we act soon, even GCSE French and German could face the chop".
Also, it has been revealed by The Guardian newspaper that there are government plans to introduce measures where schools with high failing results in GCSEs for Math and English shall be fined in order to increase the incentive for schools on higher results in the corresponding subjects.
Special educational needs
For pupils with learning difficulties, an injury/repetitive strain injury (RSI) or a disability, help is offered in these forms:
- Extra time (the amount depends on the severity of the learning difficulty, such as dyslexia, disability, injury or learning in English as a second language provided that the pupil has been studying in the UK for not more than 2 years)
- Amanuensis (somebody types or handwrites as the pupil dictates; this is normally used when the pupil cannot write due to an injury or disability)
- A word processor (without any spell checking tools) can be used by pupils who have trouble writing legibly or who are unable to write quickly enough to complete the exam
- A different format exam paper (large print, Braille, printed on coloured paper, etc.)
- A 'reader' (a teacher/exam invigilator can read out the words written on the exam, but they cannot explain their meaning)
- A different room (sometimes due to a disability a pupil can be placed in a room by themselves or with selected others; this also happens when an amanuensis is used, so as not to disturb the other candidates. All exam rooms are covered by separate dedicated invigilators.)
All of the above must be approved by the exam board concerned. There are other forms of help available, but these are the most commonly used. Pupils working below GCSE level may take a different qualification altogether in one or more subjects. The Entry Level Certificate, in particular, is designed for this purpose. There are also other qualifications which can be taken such as BTECs, which are specially designed for pupils with learning difficulties and other special needs.
Enquiries for re-marking of GCSE examinations:
Pupils and Teachers have the option to enquire re-marking of a pupil's GCSE exams if they feel the result does not reflect the pupil's expectation and/or ability or, after having reviewed a copy of the pupil's exam script, they detect a marking error.
The UK General Certificate of Secondary Education in comparison to the US High School Diploma:
In the United Kingdom, the high school diploma is considered to be at the level of the General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE), which is awarded at Year 11. For college and university admissions, the high school diploma may be accepted in lieu of the GCSE if an average grade of C is obtained in subjects with a GCSE counterpart.
As the more academically rigorous A Levels awarded at Year 13 are expected for university admission, the high school diploma alone is generally not considered to meet university requirements. Pupils who wish to study in the United Kingdom may additionally participate in the Advanced Placement (AP) or International Baccalaureate (IB) programs, which are considered to be at the level of the A Level qualifications and earn points on the UCAS Tariff, or may opt to take A Level examinations in British international schools or as private candidates. College Entrance Examination Board (CEEB) tests, such as the SAT, SAT Subject Tests, or the ACT, may also be considered.
The Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS) recommends that in addition to a high school diploma, grades of 3 or above in at least two, or ideally three, Advanced Placement exams may be considered as meeting general entry requirements for admission. The IB Diploma may also be accepted. For the College Entrance Examination Board tests, a minimum score of 600 or higher in all sections of the SAT or a minimum score of 26 or higher in all sections of the ACT along with a minimum score of 600 in relevant SAT Subject Tests may be considered as meeting general entry requirements for admission.
Many of the subjects in this list are not available in every school.
- English (pupils can take one of two 'routes'):
- Welsh or Welsh Second Language (in all state schools in Wales)
- Many Welsh schools offer Welsh Literature along with the language course
- Irish in Irish-medium schools in Northern Ireland
- Science (pupils can take a number of different 'routes'):
- One GCSE: Science (which includes elements of biology, chemistry, and physics) Often referred to as Core Science.
- Two GCSEs: Science and Additional Science (a more academic course)
- Two GCSEs: Science and Additional Applied Science (a more vocational course)
- Two GCSEs: Double Award Applied Science (a very vocational course) (also known as Dual Award or Double Science)
- Up to three GCSEs: Biology, Chemistry and Physics as separate GCSEs (known as a Triple Award or Triple Science)
Several other science based GCSEs are available to pupils in many schools. These include GCSE Astronomy and Geology.
- Religious Education (short or full course) and ICT are often compulsory, depending on the school.
- Applied French, also known as Business French, a vocational course that aims towards an NVQ
- Applied German, also known as Business German, a vocational course that aims towards an NVQ
- Modern Greek
- Modern Hebrew
- Gaeilge as L1
- Irish as L2
- Design and Technology
- Engineering and Manufacturing (double award)
- Home Economics
- Computer Science
- Computing (ICT Functional Skills) (Pilot offered by OCR for first teaching September 2010)
- Digital technology
- Moving image arts
- Applied Art and Design (double award)
- Art and Design
- Art and Design: Fine Art
- Art and Design: Graphics
- Art and Design: Photography
- Art and Design: Textiles
- Art and Design: Three-dimensional Design/Studies
- Digital Photography
- Expressive Arts
- Film Studies
- Media Studies
- Moving Image Arts
- Performing Arts
- Original Writing
- Additional Mathematics
- Construction / Construction and the Built Environment
- Environmental Science
- General Studies
- Human Physiology and Health
- IFS[disambiguation needed] Personal Finance
- Learning for Life and Work
- Motor Vehicle and Road User Studies
- Personal and Social Education
- Physical Education (PE)
- Physical Education: Games
- Preparation for Working Life
- Rural and Agricultural Science
- GCE Advanced Level; commonly referred to as "A-Levels", these are the next set of exams that most pupils take and are more in depth and academically rigorous
- Business and Technology Education Council; referred to as "BTEC", other next set of course few pupils take
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