General Certificate of Secondary Education

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The General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE) is an academic qualification, generally taken in a number of subjects by pupils in secondary education in England and Wales. Each GCSE qualification is in a particular subject, and stands alone, but a suite of such qualifications (or their equivalents) are generally accepted as the record of achievement at the age of 16, in place of a leaving certificate or baccalaureate qualification in other territories.

Studies for GCSE examinations generally take place over a period of two or three academic years (depending upon the subject, school, and exam board), starting in Year 9 or Year 10 for the majority of students, with examinations being sat at the end of Year 11. The GCSE was introduced as a replacement for the former O-Level (GCE Ordinary Level) and CSE (Certificate of Secondary Education) qualifications.

History[edit]

Previous qualifications[edit]

Before the introduction of GCSEs, students took exams towards CSE or O-Level certificates, or a combination of the two, in various subjects. The CSE broadly covered GCSE grades C-G or 4-1, and the O-Level covered grades A*-C or 9-4, but the two were independent qualifications, with different grading systems. The separate qualifications had been criticised for failing the bottom 42% of O-Level entrants who failed to receive a qualification, and the brightest CSE entrants who were not able to be differentiated as to their true ability.

The General Certificate of Education (GCE) Ordinary Level, or O-Level, was graded on a scale from A to E, with a U (ungraded) grade below that. Before 1975, the grading scheme varied between examination boards, and were not displayed on certificates. Officially, the grades before 1975 were simply "pass" and "fail".

The Certificate of Secondary Education, or CSE, was graded on a numerical scale from 1 to 5, with 1 being the best, and 5 being the worst passing grade. Below 5 there was a U (ungraded) grade, as well. The highest grade, 1, was considered equivalent to an O-Level C grade or above, and achievement of this grade often indicated that the student could have followed the more academically challenging O-Level course in the subject to achieve a higher qualification. As the two were independent qualifications with separate syllabi, a separate course of study would have to be taken to "convert" a CSE to an O-Level in order to progress to A-Level.

A previous attempt to unite these two disparate qualifications was attempted in the 1980s, with a trial "16+" examination in some subjects, awarding both a CSE and an O-Level certificate, before the GCSE was introduced.

Introduction of the GCSE[edit]

GCSEs were introduced in 1988 [1] to establish a national qualification for those who decided to leave school at 16, without pursuing further academic study towards qualifications such as A-Levels or university degrees. They replaced the former CSE and O-Level qualifications, uniting the two qualifications to allow access to the full range of grades for more students.

Upon introduction, the GCSEs were graded on a letter scale, from A to G, with a C being set as roughly equivalent to an O-Level Grade C, or a CSE Grade 1, and thus achievable by roughly the top 25% of each cohort.

Changes since initial introduction[edit]

Over time, the range of subjects offered, the format of the examinations, the regulations, the content, and the grading of GCSE examinations has altered considerably. Numerous subjects have been added and changed, and various new subjects are offered in the modern languages, ancient languages, vocational fields, and expressive arts, as well as Citizenship courses.[2]

Introduction of the A* grade[edit]

In 1994, the A* grade was added above the grade A, to further differentiate attainment at the very highest end of the qualification. This remained the highest grade available until 2017.

2000s reforms[edit]

Betweeen 2005 and 2010, a variety of reforms were made to GCSE qualifications, including increasing modularity and a change to the administration of non-examination assessment.

From the first assessment series in 2010, controlled assessment replaced coursework in various subjects, requiring more rigorous exam-like conditions for much of the non-examination assessed work, and reducing the opportunity for outside help in coursework.

2010s reforms[edit]

Under the Conservative government of David Cameron, and Education Secretary Michael Gove, various changes were made to GCSE qualifications. Before a wide range of reforms, interim changes were made to existing qualifications, removing the January series of examinations as an option in most subjects, and requiring that 100% of the assessment in subjects from the 2014 examination series is taken at the end of the course. These were a precursor to the later reforms.[3]

From 2015, a large-scale programme of reform began, changing the marking criteria and syllabi for most subjects, as well as the format of qualifications, and the grading system.[4][5]

Under the new scheme, all GCSE subjects are being revised between 2015 and 2018, and all new awards will be on the new scheme by summer 2020. The new qualifications are designed such that most exams will be taken at the end of a full 2-year course, with no interim modular assessment, coursework, or controlled assessment, except where necessary (such as in the arts). Some subjects will retain coursework on a non-assessed basis, with the completion of certain experiments in science subjects being assumed in examinations, and teacher reporting of spoken language participation for English GCSEs as a separate report.

Other changes include the move to a numerical grading system, to differentiate the new qualifications from the old-style letter-graded GCSEs, publication of core content requirements for all subjects, and an increase in longer, essay-style questions to challenge students more. Alongside this, a variety of low-uptake qualifications and qualifications with significant overlap will cease, with their content being removed from the GCSE options, or incorporated into similar qualifications.

GCSE examinations in English and mathematics were reformed with the 2015 syllabus publications, with these first examinations taking places in 2017. The remainder will be reformed with the 2016 and 2017 syllabus publications, leading to first awards in 2018 and 2019, respectively.

Qualifications that are not reformed will cease to be available. The science reforms, in particular, mean that single-award "science" and "additional science" options are no longer available, being replaced with a double award "combined science" option (graded on the scale 9-9 to 1-1 and equivalent to 2 GCSEs). Alternatively, students can take separate qualifications in chemistry, biology, and physics. Other removed qualifications include a variety of design technology subjects, which are reformed into a single "design and technology" subject with multiple options, and various catering and nutrition qualifications, which are folded into "food technology". Finally, several "umbrella" GCSEs such as "humanities", "performing arts", and "expressive arts" are dissolved, with those wishing to study those subjects needing to take separate qualifications in the incorporated subjects.[6]

These reforms do not directly apply in Wales and Northern Ireland, where GCSEs will continue to be available on the A*-G grading system. However, due to legislative requirements for comparability between GCSEs in the three countries, and allowances for certain subjects and qualifications to be available in Wales and Northern Ireland, some 9-1 qualifications will be available, and the other changes are mostly adopted in these countries as well.[7]

Examination boards[edit]

Historically, there were a variety of regional examination boards, or awarding organisations (AOs), who set examinations in their area. Over time, as deregulation allowed schools to choose which boards to use, mergers and closures led to only 5 examination boards remaining today.

The examination boards operate under the supervision of Ofqual (The Office of Qualifications and Examinations Regulation) in England, Qualifications Wales in Wales, and the CCEA in Northern Ireland.

In England, AQA, OCR, and Pearson operate under their respective brands. Additionally, WJEC operate the brand Eduqas, which develops qualifications in England. CCEA qualifications are not available in England.

In Wales, WJEC is the only accredited awarding body for GCSEs in the public sector, and thus no other board formally operates in Wales. However, some qualifications from the English boards are available as designated qualifications in some circumstances, due to not being available from WJEC.

In Northern Ireland, CCEA operates as both a board and a regulator. Most qualifications from the English boards are also available, with the exception of English language and the sciences, due to requirements for speaking and practical assessment, respectively.[8]

Structure and format[edit]

Students usually take at least 5 GCSEs in Key Stage 4, in order to satisfy the long-standing headline measure of achieving 5 A*-C grades, including English and mathematics. The exact qualifications taken by students vary from school to school and student to student, but schools are encouraged to offer at least one pathway that leads to qualification for the English Baccalaureate, requiring GCSEs in English language, English literature, mathematics, 2 science GCSEs, a modern or ancient language, and either history or geography.

Subjects[edit]

The list of currently available GCSE subjects is much shorter than before the reforms, as the new qualifications in England all have core requirements set by the regulator, Ofqual, for each subject. In addition, there are several subjects where only one board offers qualifications, including some that are only available in one country of the UK for that reason. The following lists are sourced from the exam board websites. [9][10][11][12][13][14][15][16]

Core subjects[edit]

These are the requirements for achieving the English Baccalaureate headline measure in league tables, from 2017 onwards. The Baccalaureate itself does not garner a certificate for students. Other subjects, especially religious studies, computer science, or physical education, may be compulsory in some schools as these subjects form part of the National Curriculum at Key Stage 4.

  • English: both English language and English literature
  • Mathematics
  • Science: either of these two options:
    • Combined Science (worth 2 GCSEs)
    • 3 of the following: Chemistry, Physics, Biology, Computer Science
  • Languages: one GCSE in a modern or ancient language:
    • Modern languages: Arabic, Bengali, Chinese (Mandarin), French, German, Greek, Gujarati, Modern Hebrew, Italian, Japanese, Panjabi, Persian, Polish, Portuguese, Russian, Spanish, Turkish, Urdu
    • Ancient languages: Classical Greek, Biblical Hebrew, Latin
  • Humanities: History or Geography

Other subjects[edit]

  • Sciences and Mathematics:
    • Astronomy
    • Geology
    • Psychology
    • Statistics
  • Humanities and Social Sciences:
    • Ancient History
    • Citizenship Studies
    • Classical Civilisation
    • Religious Studies
    • Sociology
  • Business and Enterprise:
    • Business
    • Economics
  • Design and Technology:
    • Design and Technology
    • Electronics
    • Engineering
    • Food Preparation & Nutrition
  • Arts:
    • Art and Design
    • Dance
    • Drama
    • Film Studies
    • Media Studies
    • Music
  • Other:
    • Physical Education
  • Northern Ireland (CCEA) only:
    • Agriculture and Land Use
    • Applied ICT
    • Business and Communication Systems
    • Child Development
    • Construction and the Built Environment
    • Contemporary Crafts
    • Digital Technology
    • Further Mathematics
    • Government and Politics
    • Health and Social Care
    • Home Economics
    • Hospitality
    • Irish
      • Irish
      • Gaeilge
    • Journalism in the Media and Communications Industry
    • Learning for Life and Work
    • Leisure, Travel and Tourism
    • Motor Vehicle and Road User Studies
    • Moving Image Arts
  • Wales (WJEC/CBAC) only:
    • Information and Communication Technology
    • Welsh (compulsory in Welsh schools):
      • Welsh Language (first language)
      • Welsh Literature (first language)
      • Welsh Second Language

Grades and tiering[edit]

GCSEs are awarded on a graded scale, and cross two levels of the Regulated Qualifications Framework (RQF): Level 1 and Level 2. These two levels roughly correspond, respectively, to foundation and higher tier in tiered GCSE qualifications. Level 1 qualifications constitute GCSEs at grades G, F, E, and D or 1, 2, and 3. Level 2 qualifications are those at grades C, B, A, and A* or 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, and 9.

The tiering of qualifications allows a subset of grades to be reached in a specific tier's paper. Formerly, many subjects were tiered, but with the mid-2010s reform, the number of tiered subjects reduced dramatically, including the removal of tiering from the GCSE English specifications. Untiered papers allow any grade to be achieved. Coursework and controlled assessment tasks are always untiered.

In the past, mathematics qualifications offered a different set of tiers, with three. These were foundation tier at grades G, F, E, and D; intermediate tier at grades E, D, C, and B; and higher tier at grades C, B, A, and A*. This eventually changed to match the tiers in all other GCSE qualifications.

The evolution of grades, and a rough comparison between them is as follows:

Approximate equivalences for GCSE, O-Level and CSE grades
GCSE Grade O-Level Grade CSE Grade
England
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
A
7
6 B B B B
5 C*
C C C
4 C
3 D D D D 2
E E E E 3
2
F F F U 4
1
G G G 5
U U U U U
  • Notes:
    •      GCSE grades 9 to 4 (A* to C) – Certificate and qualification awarded. At GCSE, considered a 'good pass', and awards a qualification at Level 2 of the RQF.
    •      GCSE grades 9 to 1 (A* 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[17]
    • ^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


Letter grades[edit]

When GCSEs were first introduced in 1988, they were graded on a letter scale in each subject: A, B, C, D, E, F, and G being pass grades, with a U (unclassified) grade below that which did not qualify the student for a certificate.

These grades were initially set such that a GCSE grade C was equivalent to an O-Level grade C or a CSE grade 1, though changes in marking criteria and boundaries over the years mean that this comparison is only approximate.

Infrequently, X and Q grades are awarded. X indicates that a course was not completed in full, and thus that an appropriate grade cannot be calculated. The Q (query) grade is a temporary grade that requires the school to contract the examining body. These latter two grades are both usually provisional, and are replaced with a regular grade once any issues have been resolved. X grades are also sometimes used for other purposes, on rare occasions, such as to indicate that an examiner found offensive material or hate speech within a student's responses. In some cases, this may lead to the student losing all marks for that paper or course. These grades are most common in subjects which discuss ethical issues, such as biology, religious studies, and citizenship.

In 1994, an A* grade was added, above the initial A grade, to indicate exceptional achievement, above the level required for the A grade.

Under the letter grade scheme, foundation tier papers assess content at grades C to G, while higher papers assess content at grades A* to C. In foundation tier papers, the student can obtain a maximum grade of a C, while in a higher tier paper, they can achieve a minimum grade of a D. If a higher tier candidate misses the D grade by a small margin, they are awarded an E. Otherwise, the grade below E in these papers is U. In untiered papers, students can achieve any grade in the scheme.

This scheme is being phased out in England, but remains in Wales and Northern Ireland. In Northern Ireland, the A* grade has been adjusted upwards with the introduction of the numerical scheme in England, such that an A* is equivalent to a new English grade 9. They also added a C* grade to line up with the grade 5 in the English scheme, for comparison purposes.

Numerical grades (2017 onwards)[edit]

From 2017 in England (and in Wales and Northern Ireland on qualifications from the English boards), some GCSEs are now assessed on a 9-point scale, using numbers from 9 to 1, and, like before, a U (unclassified) grade for achievement below the minimum pass mark. Under this system, 9 is the highest grade, and is set above the former A* classification, equivalent to the new Northern Irish A* grade. The former C grade is set at grade 4, with grade 5 being considered a "good pass" under the new scheme.

Although fewer qualifications have tiered examinations than before, the tiering system still exists. At foundation tier, the grades 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5 are available, while at higher tier, the grades 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, and 9 are targeted. Once again, if a higher tier student misses the grade 4 mark by a small margin, they are awarded a grade 3., and controlled assessment and coursework tasks are untiered.

Results[edit]

Infographic from Ofqual showing statistics about GCSE entries in 2016. 5.24 million people took a GCSE in that year.

GCSE results are published by the examination board in August, for the previous exam series in April to June of the same year. They are usually released one week after the A-Level results, in the fourth week of August, with CCEA results on Tuesday and the other boards' results on Thursday. Some boards and schools release results online, although many still require students to attend in person to collect their results from the centre they sat exams at.[18]

These results then go on to inform league tables published in the following academic year, with headline performance metrics for each school.

UK GCSE Grades Awarded (%'age)[19]
A* A B C D E F G U A*+A A*-C entries
1988 N/A 8.4 12.8 20.7 19.3 16.6 12.5 6.3 3.4 8.4 41.9 5,230,047
1989 N/A 9.9 13.8 21.9 19 15.8 11.2 5.6 2.9 9.9 45.6 5,132,998
1990 N/A 10.8 14.4 22.5 18.7 15.3 10.6 5.2 2.5 10.8 47.7 5,016,547
1991 N/A 11.4 14.7 22.4 18.6 15 10.5 5.3 2.2 11.4 48.5 4,947,593
1992 N/A 12.3 15.3 22.9 18.6 14.7 9.9 4.7 1.6 12.3 50.5 5,028,554
1993 N/A 12.5 15.9 23.1 18.6 14.2 9.3 4.4 1.8 12.5 51.5 4,968,634
1994 2.8 10.2 18 21.8 18.7 13.7 9.3 4.1 1.5 13 52.8 5,029,599
1995 3.2 9.9 17.8 22.1 18.6 14 9 3.9 1.5 13.1 53 5,431,625
1996 3.4 10.3 18 22.3 18.6 13.4 8.7 3.8 1.5 13.7 54 5,475,872
1997 3.6 10.5 18.1 22.3 18.7 13.3 8.5 3.6 1.5 14.1 54.4 5,415,176
1998 4.1 10.6 16.5 23.6 18.6 13.2 7.6 3.5 2.3 14.7 54.8 5,353,095
1999 4.4 10.8 16.9 23.7 18.7 12.7 7.5 3.3 2 15.2 55.8 5,374,751
2000 4.6 11.2 17 23.8 18.4 12.5 7.2 3.2 2.1 15.8 56.6 5,481,920
2001 4.9 11.2 16.9 24.1 18.3 12.1 7.1 3.3 2.1 16.1 57.1 5,632,936
2002 5 11.4 17.4 24.1 18.1 12 6.7 3.2 2.1 16.4 57.9 5,662,382
2003 5.1 11.6 17.3 24.1 17.7 11.7 6.8 3.3 2.4 16.7 58.1 5,733,487
2004 5.6 11.8 17.3 24.5 17.3 11.3 6.6 3.2 2.4 17.4 59.2 5.875,373
2005 5.9 12.5 18 24.8 17.3 10.5 6 2.8 2.2 18.4 61.2 5,736,505
2006 6.3 12.8 18.3 25 17.3 10.2 5.6 2.6 1.9 19.1 62.4 5,752,152
2007 6.4 13.1 18.6 25.2 17.2 9.8 5.3 2.4 2 19.5 63.3 5,827,319
2008 6.8 13.9 19.8 25.2 16.6 9.1 4.7 2.3 1.6 20.7 65.7 5,669,077
2009 7.1 14.5 19.9 25.6 16.5 8.5 4.4 2.1 1.4 21.6 67.1 5,469,260
2010 7.5 15.1 20.6 25.9 15.9 7.8 4 1.9 1.3 22.6 69.1 5,374,490
2011 7.8 15.4 21.7 24.9 15.1 7.8 4.1 2 1.2 23.2 69.8 5,151,970
2012 7.3 15.1 21.7 25.3 15.9 7.7 4.1 1.9 1 22.4 69.4 5,225,288
2013 6.8 14.5 21.5 25.3 16.6 8 4.1 2 1.2 21.3 68.1 5,445,324
2014 6.7 14.6 21.9 25.6 16.3 7.6 3.8 2.0 1.5 21.3 68.8 5,217,573
2015 6.6 14.6 22.1 25.7 16.4 7.6 3.7 1.9 1.4 21.2 69 5,277,604
2016 6.5 14.0 21.4 25.0 16.9 8.3 4.2 2.1 1.6 20.5 66.9 5,240,796
2017 7.1 14.2 20.6 23.5 16.8 9.3 4.7 2.3 1.5 21.3 65.3 3,694,771

Source: Joint Council for General Qualifications via Brian Stubbs.
Note: In the final year DES statistics for O-Levels are available, and across all subjects, 6.8% of candidates obtained a grade A, and 39.8% and A to C.

UK GCSE classifications

10
20
30
40
50
60
70
80
90
100
1990
1995
2000
2005
2010
2015
  •   A*
  •   A
  •   B
  •   C
  •   D
  •   E
  •   F
  •   G
  •   U

Assessment types[edit]

Modular and linear GCSEs[edit]

In the past, many GCSE qualifications were available as modular qualifications, where some assessment (up to 60% under the 'terminal rule') can be submitted prior to the final examination series. This allowed for students to take some units of a GCSE before the final examination series, and thus gave indication of progress and ability at various stages, as well as allowing for students to resit exams in which they didn't do as well, in order to boost their grade, before receiving the qualification.

Various qualifications were available as both modular and linear schemes, and schools could choose whichever fit best for them.

Under the Conservative government of David Cameron, and Education Secretary Michael Gove, reforms were initiated which converted all current GCSEs from 2012 (for assessment from 2014) to de-facto linear schemes, in advance of the introduction of new specifications between 2015 and 2018 (for first assessment from 2017 to 2020). These new rules required that 100% of the assessment in a GCSE be submitted in the final examination series, at the same time as applying for certification of the full qualification.[20][21][22] The examination boards complied by modifying the syllabi of the remaining GCSE qualifications to remove modular components. [20][22] subjects.[23]

Both modular and linear assessment have been politically contentious, and the opposition Labour Party UK, and particularly the MP Tristram Hunt stated that it was their policy that such reforms be halted and reversed, maintaining modular assessment in both GCSEs and A-Levels.[24] The modular scheme is supported by the University of Oxford and the University of Cambridge..[25][26][27]

Coursework and controlled assessment[edit]

In some subjects, one or more controlled assessment or coursework assignments may also be completed. These may contribute either a small or large proportion of the final grade. In practical and performance subjects, they generally have a heavier weighting to reflect the difficulty and potential unfairness of conducting examinations in these areas.

In the past, these were available in a variety of subjects, including extended writing in English, the sciences, business, and foreign languages; practical assessment in the sciences and technology subjects; and speaking assessments in languages. Since the 2010s reform, the availability has been cut back, with mostly only design and technology subjects and performing arts retaining their controlled assessment contributions. In English, the spoken language assessment has been downgraded to an endorsement which is reported separately on the English certificate, not contributing to the grade. In the sciences, practical exercises are a required part of the qualification, but are not directly assessed, being only endorsed the a teacher's statement.

The balance between controlled assessment and examinations is contentious, with the time needing to be set aside for coursework sessions being seen as a burden on the school timetable. However, the use of controlled assessment allows for the marking of some work outside of examination season, and can ease the burden on the student to perform well on the day of the examination.

Exceptional and mitigating circumstances[edit]

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.)

Any of the above must be approved by the exam board concerned. Other forms of help are available with agreement by the examination board, but the above are the most common.

If a student is ill or an unforeseen circumstance occurs that may affect their performance in an examination, they can apply for special consideration from the examination board, to prevent the negative impact of the event on their grade. The procedures vary depending on how much the student has completed, but in the case of sitting an examination, they may receive a percentage increase on their grade to reflect this, or a consideration of their coursework and other assessment alongside their predicted grades, to calculate a fair grade based on their other attainment.

Progression[edit]

GCSEs, BTECs or other Level 2 qualifications are generally required in order to pursue Level 3 qualifications such as A-Levels or BTEC Extended Diplomas beyond the age of 16.

The requirement of 5 or more A*–C or 9-4 grades, including English and mathematics, is often a requirement for post-16 qualifications in sixth form colleges or further education colleges after leaving secondary school. Where the subject taken post-16 has also been taken at GCSE, it is often required that the student achieved a grade C, 4, or 5 as a minimum at GCSE.

Most universities, in addition to their post-16 requirements, seek that their candidates have grades of C or 4 or higher in GCSE English and mathematics. Many of those who achieve below this standard will later retake GCSE English and mathematics to improve their grade. The November examination series exists for this purpose, to allow a faster path to gain these grades than waiting until the following summer's main series. Leading universities often take into account performance at GCSE level, sometimes expecting applicants to have a high proportion of A and A* grades.[28][29][30][31]

Comparison with other qualifications[edit]

Within the UK[edit]

GCSEs in England, Wales, and Northern Ireland are part of the Regulated Qualifications Framework. A GCSE at grades G, F, E, D, 1, 2, or 3 is a Level 1 qualification. A GCSE at C, B, A, A*, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, or 9 is a Level 2 qualification. A U, X, or Q grade does not award a qualification. Level 2 qualifications are much more sought-after, and generally form minimum requirements for jobs and further study expectations.

The BTEC is another Level 1/2 qualification available in the same territories as the GCSE, and is graded at 5 levels. At Level 2, comparable to A*, A, B, and C respectively are the Distinction*, Distinction, Merit, and Pass. A BTEC at Level 1 is simply marked as "Level 1", with no subdivision. Below that level, a U is awarded, as in GCSEs.

Other qualifications at this level include Cambridge Nationals, Key Skills, and Functional Skills.

The comparable qualifications in Scotland are the National 4 and National 5 awards (formerly Standard Grades and/or Intermediates).

In other territories[edit]

Current and former British territories:

The education systems of current and former British territories, such as Gibraltar,[32] and Nigeria, 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.[33] The international version of the GCSE is the IGCSE, which can be taken anywhere in the world and 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.

Ireland:

In the Republic of Ireland, the Junior Certificate is a comparable qualification.

United States

In the United States, the high school diploma is required for entry to college. In the UK, this is considered to be at the level of the GCSE, awarded at Year 11.[34][35] For college and university admissions, the high school diploma may be accepted in lieu of the GCSE if an average grade better than D+ is obtained in subjects with a GCSE counterpart.[34]

As A-Levels are generally expected for university admission, the high school diploma is not considered enough for university entry in the UK. Advanced Placement programmes or International Baccalaureate are considered equal to the A-Level, earn points on the UCAS tarrif, and may therefore be accepted in lieu of A-Levels for university entry in the UK by US students. The SAT Reasoning Test and SAT Subject Tests, or the ACT may also be considered in an offer for university entry.

Criticism and controversy[edit]

Grade disparity[edit]

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.[36] Also, according to an ITV News report, UK students tend to outperform Jersey students on GCSE examinations.[37]

Gender bias is another area of concern. Department of Education data shows that the relative performance gap between boys and girls widened significantly under GCSEs, compared with O-Levels.[38]

Subject decline[edit]

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".[39]

Moreover, the publication of "soft" subjects (e.g. Critical Thinking, General Studies etc.) and "academic" subjects (e.g. Mathematics, Sciences, Languages) for GCSEs and A-Levels by the universities of Oxford and Cambridge has created an ongoing 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".[40]

Grade inflation[edit]

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).[41]

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.[42] 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.[43]

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.[44] 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.[45]

The incorporation of GCSE awards into school league tables, and the setting of School level targets, at above national average levels of attainment, has been criticized. At the time of introduction the E grade was intended to be equivalent to the CSE grade 4, and so obtainable by a candidate of average/median ability;[46] Sir Keith Joseph set Schools a target to have 90% of their pupil obtain a minimum of a grade F (which was the ‘average’ grade achieved in the past), the target was eventually achieved nationally approximately 20 years later. David Blunkett went further and set schools the goal of ensuring 50% of 16-year olds gained 5 GCSEs or equivalent at grade C and above, requiring schools to devise a means for 50% of their pupils to achieve the grades previously only obtained by the top 30%, this was achieved with the help of equivalent and largely vocational qualifications.[47] Labelling Schools failing if they are unable to achieve at least 5 Cs, including English and Maths at GCSE, for 40% of their pupils has also been criticised, as it essentially requires 40% of each intake to achieve the grades only obtained by the top 20% at the time of the qualifications introduction.[48][49]

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.[50] 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.[51] The new Science syllabus has led to many public schools switching to the IGCSE Double Award syllabus.[52]

Errors and mistakes[edit]

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.[53]

Another incident includes a GCSE Maths exam paper where there were complaints about a question later named in the media as the 'Hannah's sweets' question. Users of Twitter complained that they found the question difficult and/or unintelligible, which was 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.[54]

In another case, concerning the 2016 GCSE biology exam, students took to twitter to complain about the apparent lack of Biology content in the exam.[55][56][57][58]

More recently, the May 2017 English literature exam (under the regulation of OCR) implied that Tybalt, a villainous, fictional character in 'Romeo and Juliet' was not a Capulet. This serious flaw in the question confused many of the students. OCR accepted responsibility and claimed no pupil would be disadvantaged. The question was worth 40 marks. This has led to doubt about the competence of the board who had 3 years to set the paper.

See also[edit]

Notes[edit]

  1. ^ Brooks, Ron (2014) [First published 1991]. "A decade and more of debate". Contemporary Debates in Education: An Historical Perspective. New York: Routledge. pp. 21–23. ISBN 978-0-582-05797-5. OL 1863538M. 
  2. ^ Tytler, David (August 25, 1988). "GCSE examiners 'very impressed' after results study". The Times (London, England) (63169): 6. 
  3. ^ "GCSE 2012 French/German/Spanish Specification" (PDF). ocr.org.uk. May 2012. Retrieved 27 November 2017. 
  4. ^ "Get the facts: GCSE reform - GOV.UK". www.gov.uk. Retrieved 2017-11-27. 
  5. ^ "Here's what the new GCSE grades mean". The Independent. 2017-08-22. Retrieved 2017-11-27. 
  6. ^ "Completing GCSE, AS and A level Reform - GOV.UK". www.gov.uk. Retrieved 2017-11-27. 
  7. ^ "Statement from the qualification regulators on changes to GCSEs, AS and A levels" (PDF). ccea.org.uk. August 2017. Retrieved 27 November 2017.  |first1= missing |last1= in Authors list (help)
  8. ^ Weir, Peter (28 June 2016). "ORAL STATEMENT ON GCSE QUALIFICATION MARKET AND GRADING - 28 JUNE 2016" (PDF). education-ni.gov.uk. Retrieved 27 November 2017. 
  9. ^ "First teaching from 2015 and 2016 | Pearson qualifications". qualifications.pearson.com. Retrieved 2017-11-29. 
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  11. ^ "First teaching from 2018 | Pearson qualifications". qualifications.pearson.com. Retrieved 2017-11-29. 
  12. ^ "WJEC GCSE Qualifications". wjec.co.uk. Retrieved 2017-11-29. 
  13. ^ "Qualifications". www.aqa.org.uk. Retrieved 2017-11-29. 
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  16. ^ CCEA (2014-02-12). "General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE)". ccea.org.uk. Retrieved 2017-11-29. 
  17. ^ CCEA (2017-07-31). "A Guide to Changes in GCSE Grading". ccea.org.uk. Retrieved 2017-11-29. 
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  27. ^ "Cambridge urges schools to enter students for AS-levels". BBC News. Retrieved 14 June 2015. 
  28. ^ "Entry requirements for Accounting and Finance | University of Bath". Bath.ac.uk. Archived from the original on 27 May 2013. Retrieved 17 June 2013. 
  29. ^ "Bristol University | Department of Computer Science | Undergraduate courses". Cs.bris.ac.uk. 2013-02-26. Retrieved 2013-06-17. 
  30. ^ "Department of Economics - Departmental admissions criteria 2013 - How to apply - Undergraduate - Study - Home". .lse.ac.uk. 2012-10-01. Retrieved 2013-06-17. 
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  32. ^ L R Hand. "Education Vocabulary - Learn English Vocabulary". Learningenglish.de. Retrieved 14 June 2015. 
  33. ^ "GCE O-Level". SEAB. 
  34. ^ a b "International Qualifications for entry into college or university in 2013" (PDF). Arts.ac.uk. Retrieved 11 October 2017. 
  35. ^ "Info for US Families". Chavegnes International College. Retrieved 11 October 2017. 
  36. ^ Trust for London and New Policy Institute. "Education". Londonspovertyprofile.org.uk. Retrieved 14 June 2015. 
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  38. ^ National Archives. "Department for Education" (PDF). Department for Education. Department for Education. Archived from the original (PDF) on 1 April 2013. Retrieved 13 February 2017. 
  39. ^ "Exam board chief: 'Unless we act soon, even GCSE French and German could face the chop'". Tes.co.uk. Retrieved 14 June 2015. 
  40. ^ "Heads 'oppose move to traditional academic GCSE subjects' - BT". Home.bt.com. 2015-08-26. Retrieved 2015-12-23. 
  41. ^ "Were O-Levels Harder Than GCSEs?". Laura McInerney. Retrieved 5 December 2016. 
  42. ^ Robert Coe, Changes in Standards at GCSE and A-Level: Evidence from ALIS and YELLIS, CEM, Durham 2007 p.4[permanent dead link] accessed 29 July 2011
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  44. ^ House of Commons Education and Skills Third Report 2003 retrieved 27 July 2011
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  52. ^ Garner, Richard (29 September 2007). "Majority of private schools 'ditched at least one GCSE'". The Independent. London. Retrieved 14 June 2015. 
  53. ^ "Anger over 'harsh' English GCSE grades". BBC News. 23 August 2012. Retrieved 14 June 2015. 
  54. ^ Alex Bellos. "How to solve the maths GCSE question about Hannah's sweets that went viral | Science". The Guardian. Retrieved 2015-12-23. 
  55. ^ Reporter, Staff (2016-05-20). "This is the GCSE biology exam that caused thousands of students to complain". International Business Times UK. Retrieved 2017-05-21. 
  56. ^ Espinoza, Javier (17 May 2016). "Students left 'fuming' over GCSE biology exam that contained questions about drunk 15-year-olds". Telegraph.co.uk. Retrieved 11 October 2017. 
  57. ^ Association, Press (17 May 2016). "GCSE exam pupils baffled by 'business studies' question in biology paper". Theguardian.com. Retrieved 11 October 2017. 
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References[edit]

External links[edit]