General Certificates for Secondary Education (GCSEs) are qualifications usually taken by 15 and 16 year olds. These certificates can be issued upon completion of Key Stage 4 (KS4) courses across a range of different subjects. They include the compulsory maths, science, and English, as well as sports, humanities, arts, and languages. 

Last year, over 5.2 million entries for exams were made across Wales, Northern Ireland, and England. These include increasing numbers of students participating in retakes for core subjects required for their next stages of education. Additionally, adults at all stages of life are returning to or taking their GCSEs for the first time.

Most GCSEs are tiered, which means that a student can sit a higher or foundation paper, depending on his or her ability in each subject. The level of a paper in one subject does not necessarily correlate or dictate the levels of other subjects.


How Important Are GCSEs?

Students who leave KS4 education with a large number of GCSEs graded between 9 and 5, previously A* and C, will find it easier to access a wider range of better quality education and job routes. Students wishing to enter the best academic institutions for sixth form and university studies will find that the grade requirements are high and the competition is great. Students choosing routes into college courses for vocational careers such as Health & Beauty, Plumbing, Electrics, Animal Sciences, and Computing may find grade requirements and competition prevents access to the better colleges and sixth forms. As a minimum, employers and educational institutions will ask for five GCSEs graded between 9 and 4/5, previously A* and C.

Many employers struggle to decide which employees to choose when they are faced with hundreds of applicants with similar experience and qualifications. GCSEs offer another means of identifying the candidates who have a longer track record of excellent achievement. GCSEs have been used for over 25 years to benchmark performance of students and schools.

The pressure to perform is high for students, parents, schools, and teachers. On top of this, new changes that were introduced in 2015 will continue to be unveiled and adjusted in the following years, completely overhauling the current GCSE system and introducing new structures and grade schemes.

GCSEs Changes

What are the changes to GCSEs? There are three main changes that can be identified: first, the new grading structure, secondly, the GCSE format, and finally, GCSE subject options.

The New GCSE Grading Structure

Most noticeably, students taking GCSE papers in 2017 will not only receive A–G grades but also a number between 9 and 1. Currently, 9 is the highest grade that can be awarded, and only the top 3% of students in the UK are expected to be awarded this grade. Content is expected to be harder for students across all subjects due to the government and Education Board believing that students must face more challenging material. For a more extensive understanding of the new marking schemes, visit our GCSE Teacher's page.

The New GCSE Format – from Modular to Linear

Some GCSE subjects have previously been assessed in a modular format. This essentially meant that the GCSE was broken up into smaller assessments of different bite-sized chunks, some of which involved coursework, whilst other smaller exams were undertaken at the end of the academic year. The idea was that students would cover a subject within a ‘module’, be tested on it, and then move on from it, perhaps only revisiting it for a small part of their final paper.

These ‘modular’ GCSEs were introduced just over six years ago in 2009. So why move back to linear assessments? What even is a linear assessment?

Linear assessments focus on student assessments being taken at the end of the course, not the end of the year. This means that students will receive fewer marks for practical assessments, coursework, and end-of-academic-year tests. Instead, greater value is placed on a final exam. The idea behind linear assessments is that choosing this method over modular assessment tackles several problems that are perceived to threaten student achievement. These are primarily, excessive testing of young people, as well as a decrease in quality and coherence of subjects being taught in disjointed and uncoordinated modules.

Which method of assessment is the better way? There is evidence to suggest that a combination of the two works best for most students. But, more importantly, the question that should be focused on is, ‘What does this mean for you as a parent or student taking GCSEs?’ Essentially, it means that for each subject you are undertaking, you need to understand what the value of the final exam is as well as which topics will be tested in that final exam. Statistics on retake results often show that students do worse, not better, when they re-take a test, so it’s important to try and take the exam once and for all.

The New GCSE Subjects

Along with the new grading system and the updated course styles, many of the subjects have undertaken reforms too. Changes include reduction in course options and removal of different levels of certificates. Read on to find out which major changes may affect you or your child.

Maths GCSE Reforms

Starting in September 2015, the new Maths GCSE subjects were taught in England. The first batch of results for this two-year course will be available in August 2017. Whilst the subjects and topics have had a shake-up, most of the noticeable changes are the tasks students are asked to perform across the different topics they face.

A greater emphasis has been placed on problem solving, with student learning focused more on addressing difficult content and working out solutions. As the subject matter has increased in difficulty across the tiers, many schools have stated this increased difficulty as the reason for higher numbers of foundation tier entries for the Maths GCSE.

Science GCSE Reforms

As a result of reforms, students are now able to take a ‘Combined Science’ course that equates to two GCSEs, or to choose three separate GCSEs covering each of the three science sections— Physics, Chemistry, and Biology.

The first GCSE Science subject examinations will be taken next year, in summer 2018.

English GCSE Reforms

Foundation tier has been removed from the new English certificates, which means that there is no foundation level for students who struggle to achieve a pass. Instead, all students, whatever their abilities, will undertake the same English GCSE exams. Furthermore, those who would have been graded on foundation papers in the past will instead receive grades that reflect their abilities against the 9–1 grade scheme.

The first set of new GCSE English exams will be released this summer. The new English language and English literature courses were introduced at the same time as the Maths course, in September 2015.

GCSE Past Papers

There are three main institutions that write the papers and mark schemes for GCSEs. They are Edexcel—which is part of Pearson—AQA, and OCR. Your school will choose which test distributor to use, which will also determine your GCSE exam dates for 2017. Be sure to check with your school to find out exactly when each GCSE subject will be administered throughout the year.

Properly preparing for your GCSE exams is crucial to your success. JobTestPrep is here to help. We offer revision material for the GCSE exams. Use our practice papers pack to familiarise yourself with the subject material and help you achieve your GCSE target grades. JobTestPrep has developed practice tests designed to accurately simulate the GCSE past papers.

GCSE Teacher Resources

Are you a teacher looking for resources to help your pupils excel on the upcoming GCSEs? JobTestPrep is here for your needs as well. Check out our GCSE Teacher’s page, and learn how we can help you help your students receive the results they want on their 2017 GCSE exams.

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