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Ten things you should know about GCSEs

By Will Oldfield
01 September 2020

For an exam that nearly every child will sit – in 2016, 5.24 million were taken – the GCSE can seem surprisingly opaque, particularly in today’s educational environment of constant syllabuses and grading changes. Here are 10 things you should know about it.

1. The GCSE (General Certificate of Secondary Education) is the standard exam taken at the end of secondary school in the UK, and in a handful of other countries (the overseas version is called the IGCSE, or International GCSE, and was developed by the University of Cambridge; many private schools choose to use it – see point 8 below). While the subjects taken are flexible, it is usually expected that everyone will sit exams in mathematics, English literature and the sciences.

2. The GCSE is accredited and controlled by five exam boards across the UK: AA, OCR and Pearson in England; WJEC in Wales; and CCEA in Northern Ireland. Each sets its own exams and controls its own moderation and grading. While there can be a lot of noise about the different boards regarding difficulty and marking, the reality is that they all have similarly high standards, and which board accredited the GCSE does not affect its value to universities or employers.

3. The National Curriculum is decided by the Department of Education and all state- and local-authority-run schools must follow it. As such, the GCSE is based around the content of the curriculum, and while they have more freedom at younger years, private schools must in effect also teach the National Curriculum in Key Stage 4 (14-16) to prepare students for GCSE.

4. The GCSE is assessed in two ways – coursework and examination. Coursework can take many forms, from an art portfolio compiled across two years to an experiment write-up in biology, while exams are sat at set times. In recent years, there has been a move to reduce the amount and weighting of coursework because it has gained a reputation for being easily exploited.

5. Since 2017, the grading for GCSEs has moved to a numerical scale of 9-1 in order to create greater differentiation at the top end, as well as space out the overall grading curve. A 9 is very hard to achieve (only about 4.5 per cent of grades awarded) and represents a step above the old A*.

6. Coursework is assessed and moderated by the school, with a small cross section sent away to be moderated by the exam board. Exams are marked by the board, which employs teams of examiners (many of whom are teachers themselves).

7. There is a suite of support and help available to students, which is assessed and granted approval by the examination board at the request of the school. This includes extra time (usually 25 to 50 per cent) and use of a word processor, a scribe or a reader. Common reasons that students qualify for support include dyslexia, disability, injury or if they speak English as an additional language.

8. While many universities may claim to look at GCSE results, it is likely that only the most selective do. That said, the GCSE is important for students aspiring to higher education. Many sixth forms have high GCSE requirements for entry and may not allow students to take subjects unless their results suggest they can cope with the step up. For those aiming for Oxbridge, the majority of applicants will have a sheaf of impressive GCSEs.

Some private schools used to offer the IGCSE because of the belief that it was slightly harder and therefore more favourably viewed by universities. However, the recent grading and exam reforms seem to have largely fixed any disparity that did exist.

9. Schools and teachers are generally positive about the GCSE – the exams are rigorous enough to ensure that hard work is rewarded but not so punishing as to be unfair. While teachers can be quick to complain about any changes made to the National Curriculum, the reality is that it is sound and does cover interesting and useful topics and skills.

But there are two main areas where schools can have issues with the GCSE: in the consistency and accuracy of marking, which varies by year and is beholden to the examiners; and with the weighting and relative value of grades – particularly since 2017, with schools (and universities) kept somewhat in the dark about the exact weighting of the new grades. This latter issue will persist until the new cohort with numerical grades has passed through the system and into the job market.

10. Student perception of the GCSE is generally good – while few actively enjoy sitting exams, the courses are well designed and enjoyable to learn and there is a wide variety of options available. However, the main issues brought up by students are the aforementioned confusion over grade-weighting and strain on mental health, as the move away from coursework has led to greater exam stress.