GCSEs explained: examining the changes

GCSEs are widely regarded internationally as the gold-standard qualification for students aged 14–16. As the UK government continues to push through reforms to drive up standards, we take a look at current developments.

Relocate Global Guide to Education and Schools in the UK 2019/20

Kent College Canterbury

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The GCSE (General Certificate of Secondary Education) is the main school-leaving qualification in England, Wales and Northern Ireland (Scotland operates an independent system of National qualifications). It is generally well regarded by higher-education institutions and employers for its rigour and breadth of study.However, in recent years, the examination system has come under attack for failing to address grade inflation and placing a heavy reliance on resits and modular coursework assessment. The government has responded by introducing a comprehensive programme of GCSE reforms, which are being rolled out in a phased approach until 2019.GCSEs are currently available in around 50 subjects and are usually studied full time at school or college, taking five terms to complete. The qualification mainly involves studying the theory of a subject, combined with some investigative work. Some subjects, such as Science, also involve practical work. They are assessed mainly on written exams, although there are elements of coursework in some subjects. Some subjects, such as art and design, have more coursework and fewer exams.GCSE exams are taken in May/June when pupils are in Year 11, and the results are published in August.School search and education advice - connect with our in-country experts

GCSE reform in England

Reforms to the GCSE system in England began in September 2015 and included a major change to the way in which GCSEs were graded. From 2017, English language, English literature and maths were the first subjects to be graded 1–9, with 9 being the top grade and set above the old A* grade.The new system is intended to provide more differentiation, specifically for higher-achieving students. The grading for all other subjects will be rolled out across 2018 and 2019. However, as the grading is being changed over three years rather than all at once, some students will receive a mixture of letters and numbers in their results.The new exams are also said to be more demanding, with content developed in coalition between the government and the exam boards. According to the Department for Education (DfE), the exams include “more challenging content”.School Standards Minister Nick Gibb said, “This is the culmination of a six year process of curriculum and qualifications reform, which has involved wide consultation with teachers, schools and universities.“The new GCSEs are more rigorous so that young people can gain the knowledge and understanding they need to succeed in the future and compete in an increasingly global workplace.‎”Some experts believe that one of the more positive changes is how schools are ranked in performance tables. Rather than looking at the number of pupils achieving a C grade or above, which tempts schools to place too much emphasis on students who are attaining just below a C grade and too little emphasis on low- and high-achieving students, schools now receive a progress score – Progress 8 – that measures every pupil’s GCSE results against their Key Stage 2 tests, taken at the end of primary school.For more information see Performance Tables: deciphering the code  Relocate Global Guide to Education and Schools in the UK 2019/20

Wales and Northern Ireland

Following recent government changes, policies and regulations are no longer aligned in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, so examination boards cannot offer the same qualifications in all three countries.GCSEs offered by the Welsh Joint Education Committee (WJEC) in Wales are retaining the A*–G grading system, although the WJEC’s Eduqas brand is offering 9–1 GCSEs for schools in England, Northern Ireland and the independent-school sector in Wales.However, in June 2016, Northern Ireland’s Education Minister, Peter Weir, lifted the restriction on 9–1 GCSEs enforced in 2015, which means that English examination boards are able to offer their 9–1 GCSEs in Northern Ireland. The Council for Curriculum Examinations and Assessment (CCEA) GCSEs is retaining the A*–G grading system, but in summer 2019, the CCEA will realign its A* grade to reflect the level of attainment at grade 9, and will create a new C* grade to equate to the new grade 5.


The International GCSE (IGCSE) is an internationally recognised qualification at the same level as the GCSE. It is intended to take a broader approach to learning.According to the University of Cambridge International Examinations (CIE) examining board, which is the main awarding body of the IGCSE to UK independent schools, the qualification “encourages learner-centred and enquiry-based approaches to learning, and develops learners’ skills in creative thinking, enquiry and problem-solving, giving learners excellent preparation for the next stage in their education”.Relocate Global Guide to Education and Schools in the UK 2019/20IGCSEs are no longer eligible for funding in state schools in the UK and therefore do not appear in the government's Key Stage 4 Performance Tables.Schools can offer any combination of subjects, each of which is certificated separately. Over 70 subjects are available, including more than 30 language courses, offering a variety of routes for learners of different abilities, including those whose first language is not English.The CIE has redeveloped its IGCSEs in English language, English literature and mathematics to reflect the GCSE reforms, and will change its grading system from letters to numbers, although schools can retain the A*–G grading system should they wish. Over the next few years, the CIE will also be providing a 9–1 grading option for certain existing A*–G IGCSE syllabuses.This article was revised on 25 July 2019.

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