GCSEs - Level 1 and 2

Students 18plus 040GCSEs - General Certificate of Education

GCSEs are the qualifications most young people take in Years 10 and 11 - Key Stage 4. They are usually studied over two years but in some schools  GCSEs start in Year 9.
  • GCSEs are offered in a range of subjects such as, history, geography, French, design as well as English, maths and science. These are currently graded 9-1 or A*-G - see below for more about the grade changes.
  • Some schools offer Applied GCSEs in vocational subjects such as engineering, business, and health and social care. 
  • To start a GCSE you don’t usually need any qualifications.
  • A small number of additional marks will be awarded for spelling, punctuation and grammar for GCSE English literature, geography, history and religious studies. 

Having good grades in GCSEs will increase your career options, particularly if you can pass enough to reach Level 2 - 5 GCSEs at grade 9-4 or A*-C.


Case study


"You have to be really careful choosing your options because the subjects you pick that day, are the subjects you'll be doing for the remaining years in high school. Make sure your options are based on the subjects you see yourself making exceptional progress in and of course, the subjects you enjoy". Tariq (69kb PDF).

Read more from Tariq

There have been changes to GCSEs in England:

Students taking 'new' GCSEs will get one of nine grades - 9 to 1 (rather than one of eight grades A* to G) or they will be unclassified (U), which means they will not get a GCSE qualification.

  • The new grades have been introduced to show that GCSEs have been reformed and have more challenging content. The grades also allow better separation of results between students of different abilities.
  • Grade 9 is the highest grade. Fewer grade 9s will be awarded in each subject than were previously awarded A*s, rewarding exceptional performance. Other high-achieving students will get a grade 8 or 7.
  • Year 11 students who take English language, English literature and maths GCSEs from 2017 will be awarded grades 9 to 1, with 9 being the highest grade.
  • A grade 4 (equivalent to a grade C) and above is a ‘standard pass’; this is the minimum level that students need to reach in English and maths, otherwise they will need to continue to study these subjects as part of their post-16 education or training. Many jobs will need a grade 4 or higher.
  • 20 more GCSEs in other subjects, including science subjects, were introduced in September 2016 for students taking exams in 2018. Students taking the combined science qualification will receive an award worth two GCSEs consisting of two grades from 9 to 1, giving 17 possible grade combinations – for example, 9-9, 9-8, 8-8, 8-7, 7-7… to 1-1.
  • Assessments for most new GCSE subjects are by exam only, which are taken at the end of the course.
  • The last GCSE changes were introduced in September 2017 for students taking exams in 2019.
  • For measuring school performance, the Department of Education will publish the percentage of students achieving a grade 5 (‘strong pass’) and above.
  • There are different assessment/criteria for GCSEs in Wales and Northern Ireland.

See GOV.UK for grade comparison chart and facts about the reforms, including a timetable of when individual subjects change.

Some schools offer:

  • The English Baccalaureate (EBacc) a set of subjects used by Government and universities to measure how well schools are doing. Subjects included in the EBacc are GCSEs in English, maths, geography or history, a language and two sciences – which can include computer science.
  • IGCSEs are internationally recognised and are similar to GCSEs. See Cambridge International Examinations for more information.

Adult Education offers one year part-time GCSEs in maths and English.

Look on GOV.UK for more information on the reforms to GCSEs and A levels.

Page updated May 2018

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