GCSEs - General Certificate of Education - Level 1 and 2

GCSEs are the qualifications most young people take in Years 10 and 11

This is also known as Key Stage 4. They are usually studied over two years but in some schools young people will start studying their GCSEs 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 graded 9-1 (they used to be graded A*-G) - see below for more about grades.
  • 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 or 5 GCSEs at grade 9-4 (previously A*-C).

GCSE grades in England:

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

  • The grades are designed to allow better separation of results between students of different abilities and so that GCSEs can include more challenging content.

  • 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 will be awarded grades 9 to 1, with 9 being the highest grade.

  • A grade 4 and above is a ‘standard pass’ (similar to an old grade C); 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.

  • Students taking applied GCSEs or a 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.

  • For measuring school performance, the Department of Education will publish the percentage of students achieving a grade 5 (‘strong pass’) and above. To begin some A level courses, students may require a GCSE grade 5, so check what you need.

See GOV.UK for a grade factsheet.

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 what different qualification levels mean
  • For information on UK exam boards, including information about 'old exam boards, such as AEB, BTEC and JMB.

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