What Are GCSEs? The Ultimate Guide

What Are GCSEs? The Ultimate Guide

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In 1986, GCSE exams were introduced in the British education system. It is the most common type of academic qualification in the country, with around 5 million students taking them each year. 

In this expansive article, we cover everything from the GCSE average point score to function skills equivalent to GCSE to GCSE equivalent qualifications and more. 

What does GCSE stand for and what is a GCSE course like?

‘GCSE’ is an abbreviation for General Certificate of Secondary Education. The qualification is highly valued by not only schools and colleges but also employers across the UK, revolving mainly around studying a subject’s theory, along with some investigative work, although some GCSE subjects involve practical work as well. 

Students typically start preparing for their GCSE exams in Year 9 or 10 of their formal education, which depends on the school they attend, and the subject they have studied. The exams are taken towards the end of Year 11. 

Most students prefer to take at least 5 GCSEs at Key Stage 4, so that they can achieve the necessary qualifications in core subjects such as Maths, Science, and English – in addition to any two subjects they choose. This is not etched in stone, however, as different schools have different requirements. 

The GCSE concept has changed significantly over the years. Now, students can take up more subjects than before. Existing subjects, regulations, exam formats, and the GCSE point score have all changed considerably. 

GCSEs are typically studied by 14-16 year olds, although you can always secure your GCSE qualification at any age. 

How crucial are GCSEs in an individual’s academic journey?


GCSEs act as the first formal record of your educational potential and abilities. Many people incorrectly assume that GCSEs matter only when you want to get into college whereas, in reality, they play a major role in your life well after you’ve secured your qualifications, finished college, and moved into a professional field.  

So, the things you learn in a GCSE Maths or Science class, for example, is something you’ll carry with you and directly apply in various aspects of your everyday life. 

GCSEs also carry a lot of importance as they are a minimum requirement for entering most professional roles and university courses. This pretty much makes them the most important academic qualification in the UK – more so than ‘A’ Levels because these cannot get you very far unless you get a good GCSE average point score in core subjects. 

However, GCSEs aren’t a mandatory academic qualification as many universities set their own standards and requirements while employers can also be rather subjective, with a number of factors affecting hiring. So, if completing your GCSEs right now is not on the cards, don’t worry!

However, in case you are wondering ‘how many GCSEs do you need for university’, then this useful read is worth looking into. 

How long does a GCSE course typically last?

The length of a GCSE course can vary, depending on your mode or method of study. For example, in a traditional UK school setting, you may be required to take a certain number of GCSE exams at once, so it might take you between 2 and 3 years to complete, depending on the individual school system and the subjects chosen. 

Full-time students have completed GCSE courses over the course of two years, while some have taken GCSE short courses which take just a year to complete. 

Are online GCSE courses available?

what are GCSEs learning

Yes, in fact, online GCSE courses is one of the quickest and easiest ways to secure your qualification. As soon as you enrol, you can access the materials online and start preparing. After completing one module, you can progress to the next. 

Online GCSE courses do, however, differ from traditional or college-based GCSE courses as you are not required to complete the course materials at the same pace as everyone else in a classroom setting. That’s certainly very convenient if you prefer to study on your own or, perhaps, if you want to complete your GCSEs earlier than everyone else. 

What is a pass in GCSE?

The UK government has set ‘grade 4’ as the standard passing grade, while ‘grade 5’ is considered a ‘strong pass’. This would be the equivalent of a high C and low B, respectively, according to the old grading system. 

Grade 4, therefore, is the minimum level students have to achieve without having to resit Maths and English post-16.

What are functional skills equivalent to GCSE?

Functional Skills Level are equivalent to a GCSE Grade 1-3 or D-G while Level 2 Functional Skills are equivalent to a Grade 4 – that’s ‘C’ according to the old system. 

So, if you want to meet university entry requirements, Level 2 Functional Skills would be the course you’d want to take. 

What are GCSE equivalent qualifications?

The IGCSE (International General Certificate of Secondary Education) is the most equivalent to GCSEs. 

It is a 2-year programme where the results are certified according to the same grading system that governs GCSEs. 

What is the GCSE point score?

The GCSE point score, also known as GCSE average point score, is the average grade in reformed GCSE results. So, let’s say you take 10 GCSEs and receive Grade 8 in 5 of the subjects, and Grade 7 in the other 5 – your average would come to 7.5. 

It’s important to understand what GCSE Grades 1-9 mean. Some students believe that the new grading system is a continuation or replication of the previous A* to G grading system. This isn’t the case because the Grade 1-9 system is not intended to replace the previous lettered system. 

In case you’re wondering what a good GCSE point score is, then a Grade 5 indicates a ‘strong pass’. Anything above this grade is considered reasonably good. 

A score of 6.5, for example, is considered average – where you studied for 10 GCSEs with a Grade 7 in 5 subjects and Grade 6 in the other 5. 

What GCSE courses are available to study?

Quite a few actually, to cater to each student’s unique learning goals and professional aspirations, including:

  • Biology 
  • Business Studies 
  • Chemistry 
  • Economics 
  • English Language  
  • English Literature 
  • History 
  • Mathematics 
  • Physics 
  • Psychology 
  • Sociology 

Are some of these harder than others? Sure, they can be, depending on your individual learning abilities. For example, some of the hardest GCSE subjects tend to be:

  • Biology
  • Computer Science
  • Economics
  • English Literature
  • English Language
  • Maths
  • Modern Foreign Languages
  • Physics

While some of the easiest ones usually are:

  • Business Studies
  • Drama
  • Film Studies
  • Geography
  • Hospitality and Catering
  • Media Studies
  • Physical Education
  • Religious Studies

If I fail my GCSEs, what can I do?

Failing your GCSEs is not the end of the world, so relax!

If you did not get the desired results in your GCSE exams, then there are number of ways in which you can resit them. 

You can always go back to class by enrolling in resit classes at your local school/college. 

But if you want a more flexible timetable and don’t wish to go back to class, you can also resit your GCSEs online. In fact, many people consider retaking GCSEs as an adult.

If you want to learn more about ‘what happens if you fail your GCSEs’, then this read explains things in a lot more detail. 

Is there any way of ensuring I don’t fail my GCSEs?

While there’s no surefire way to guarantee that you don’t fail, there are some strategies you can take under advisement:

Take the right number of subjects

At the minimum, you need to take 5 GCSE subjects although you can take up to 16! The downside with the latter, however, is that you will likely find it very challenging to get a good grade in every subject. This is why, on average, most students take up to 9 GSCE subjects. 

Choose subjects you are good at 

Apart from choosing the right number of subjects, you must also consider both mandatory and elective subjects according to your individual interests as well as aspirations. 

So, right from the start, think about subjects that interest you and why you might enjoy them. If you feel that a subject is more challenging than you had anticipated, then you might as well put the same effort in another subject where you’ll actually do good. 

Also take into account how some subjects might take more time to master and complete than others. Therefore, it’s worth setting some time to investigate which areas each subject covers according to coursework topics or units, for example, and how it might impact your subject selection at the higher ‘A’ level. 

What if I want to apply for university courses with no GCSE qualifications?

Traditionally, universities ask for a combination of GSCE and A Levels grades as part of the eligibility criteria for enrolling into a degree programme. So, the GCSE courses you take now could potentially complement and even influence your subject choices in university. 

With that said, the UK education system has evolved over the years, and with it, the way people can acquire a university degree. So, as it stands, many degree programmes now offer a higher level of flexibility with regards to the GCSE qualifications they require, although English and Maths continue to be the most requested. 

Additionally, many universities are now considering other application-related elements, and not just GCSE qualifications. For example, personality and character traits like tenacity, resilience, proactiveness, etc., along with past working experience, can also help with getting accepted at academic institutions. 

Learn what are GCSEs Today 

This article will have likely answered many of the questions you might have had about GCSEs, including the all-important “what is a pass in GCSE”, and “what does GCSE stand for”. 

In many cases, GCSE qualifications can open up a lot of advanced education and career opportunities for you. If you want to learn more about how GCSEs can impact your education and career choices, expert advice is only a phone call away: 0333 344 5690.

You can also learn about additional resources for GCSE learning in 2024 now.


What do GCSEs actually do?

GCSEs (General Certificate of Secondary Education) are standardized exams in the UK that assess a student’s knowledge and skills in various subjects. They serve as a key qualification for further education and can influence future career opportunities.

What is a GCSE in the UK?

A GCSE (General Certificate of Secondary Education) is an academic qualification in the United Kingdom that students typically pursue between the ages of 14 and 16. It assesses knowledge and skills in a range of subjects.

What are GCSE subjects?

GCSE subjects cover a wide range of disciplines, including mathematics, science, languages, humanities, arts, and vocational courses. Students usually choose a combination of subjects to study.

Is GCSE Year 10 or 11?

GCSEs are typically taken in Year 10 and Year 11 of secondary school education in the UK. Students usually start preparing for GCSE exams in Year 10 and take the exams in Year 11.


GOV.UK (2023) Additional support materials for GCSE exams in 2024. [online] Available at: https://www.gov.uk/government/news/additional-support-materials-for-gcse-exams-in-2024 [accessed 02/01/24]

Nick Cooper
Nick is NCC's resident blog author and covers a range of subjects, including teaching and health & social care. NCC is an international learning provider with over 20 years’ experience offering learning solutions. To date, NCC has engaged with over 20,000 employers, and delivered quality training to over half a million learners.
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