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What are GCSEs?

These are the main qualifications that your child will do in Key Stage 4.

Most children tend to take between 8-11 subjects, depending on the recommendation of their school, their academic ability and topics they are interested in.

GCSEs are designed to be studied over two years in Years 10 and 11, although some schools encourage students to study certain courses in one year, taking the exams at the end of Year 10.

Your support, encouragement and interest can make a huge difference to your child’s motivation and ability to cope with the demands of the exam period.

In Year 8 or 9, they’ll be asked to choose some of the subjects that they’ll take in Years 10 and 11.

Compulsory subjects

There are some subjects that are so important, everyone has to study them. Everyone will take an exam (usually a GCSE) in the following:

  • English
  • Mathematics
  • Science

Other subjects that they may study (but not necessarily take an exam) in are:

  • Information and Communication Technology (ICT)
  • Careers Education
  • Citizenship
  • Physical Education (PE)
  • Religious Studies
  • Sex and Relationship Education
  • Work-related learning

Some schools have additional compulsory subjects. Check this out at your school as they can vary a lot in the options that they offer.


Options are the subjects or qualifications that your child can choose to study.

They will receive all the information they need about their options from school and the choices are often discussed at parents evenings. It is very likely that the school will produce a booklet of the choices that are available, which will also explain the option blocks from which choices can be made.

Schools have different ways of organising their option blocks, for example, your child’s school may provide you with the choice of one course in each of the following four area:

  • Arts (including Art and Design, Music, Dance, Drama and Media Arts)
  • Design and Technology
  • Humanities (History and Geography)
  • Modern Foreign Languages

Schools are not able to offer unlimited subject combinations. It’s possible that your child’s choices may be limited. You will need to find out what GCSE subjects and combinations are available at their school.

Changes to GCSEs

In 2012 the process of reforming GCSE's started with the first students studying the new GCSE's in 2015.  The changes included:

  • More demanding content.
  • Exams taken at the end of the two year course, not on completion of modules.
  • Less coursework and assessment by exam.
  • A new grading scale that uses number 1 to 9 with 9 being the top grade.
  • Fewer short answer and more essay style exams questions.
  • Limited opportunities to re-sit.
  • Introduction of marks for spelling, punctuation and grammar in some subjects.

Further information

See the document below to find out more:

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