GCSEs - Level 1 and 2

Students 18plus 040GCSEs - General Certificate of Education

GCSEs are the qualifications most young people take in Years 10 and 11 - Key Stage 4. They are usually studied over two years but in some schools  GCSEs start 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, which is 5 GCSEs at grade 9-4 (previously A*-C).


Case study


"You have to be really careful choosing your options because the subjects you pick that day, are the subjects you'll be doing for the remaining years in high school. Make sure your options are based on the subjects you see yourself making exceptional/very good progress in and of course, the subjects you enjoy". Tariq (69kb PDF).

Read more from Tariq

GCSE grades in England:

Students taking GCSEs get one of nine grades - 9 to 1 (rather than one of the old eight grades 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 and grade 1 is the lowest 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.
  • A grade 4 (equivalent to a grade C) is a ‘standard pass’; 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 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.
  • There are different assessment/criteria for GCSEs in Wales and Northern Ireland.

See GOV.UK for a grade factsheet. 

Some schools offer:

  • The English Baccalaureate (EBacc) is 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.
  • For information on UK exam boards, including information about 'old exam boards, such as AEB, BTEC and JMB
  • Look on GOV.UK for what different qualification levels mean


Page updated July 2020

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