General Certificate of Secondary Education

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, Wales and Northern Ireland. 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

Previous qualifications

Before the introduction of GCSEs, students took CSE (Certificate of Secondary Education) or the more academically challenging O-Level (General Certificate of Education (GCE) Ordinary Level) exams, 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 were criticised for disadvantaging the bottom 42% of O-Level entrants who failed to receive a qualification, and the highest-achieving CSE entrants who had no opportunity to demonstrate their true ability.

In its later years, O-Levels were graded on a scale from A to E, with a U (ungraded) grade below that. Before 1975, the grading scheme varied between examination boards, but typically there were "pass" grades of 1 to 6 and "fail" grades of 7 to 9. However the grades were not displayed on certificates.

The CSE was graded on a numerical scale from 1 to 5, with 1 being the highest, and 5 being the lowest passing grade. Below 5 there was a U (ungraded) grade. 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 taken an 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.

There was a previous attempt to unite these two disparate qualifications 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

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. However the exam papers sometimes had a choice of questions designed for the more able and the less able candidates.

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

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

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. The youngest pupil to gain an A* grade was Thomas Barnes, who earned an A* in GCSE Mathematics at the age of 7.[3]

2000s reforms

Between 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

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.[4]

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.[5][6]

Under the new scheme, all GCSE subjects were 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.[7]

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.[8]