General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE) graded A* – G (three country agreement pre-2015)

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  • England
  • Northern Ireland
  • Wales

GCSEs were originally introduced to mark student achievement at the end of compulsory education.

The aim was to create a single qualification that would cater for at least 80% of the cohort at age 16.

They are now used as a benchmark for acceptable student achievement at age 16.

They are also used as an indicator of the most appropriate post-16 student route for a student. In some instances achievement at GCSE will be used as an entry requirement for post-16 study.

Education context

GCSE qualifications graded A* – G have been in existence, subject to regular review and revision, since 1986 and were used across England, Northern Ireland and Wales.

GCSEs are available in 40 subject areas and over five million are awarded each year. They are the qualifications that most students take at age 16.

In England, new GCSEs graded 9 – 1 started to be phased in for first teaching from September 2015.

Wales and Northern Ireland retain GCSEs graded A* – G.

For examination in 2016 all GCSE subjects were graded A* – G.

For examination in 2017, all GCSE subjects in England, except English language, English literature and mathematics were graded A* – G.

All GCSEs graded A* – G will be phased out in England by first teaching September 2018.

UCAS has published separate profiles for:

Awarding organisations
  • AQA
  • CCEA
  • OCR
  • Pearson (Edexcel)
  • WJEC

GCSEs graded A* – G are available as shortcourse, single and double award qualifications; the single award qualification is the most common form.

Content in England must include the Key Stage 4 programme of study for England, for those subjects for which a programme of study is mandatory, i.e. English, English language, mathematics, and science subjects.

From 2008 – 2010 most GCSEs graded A* – G were unitised and contained a maximum of four units in a single award.

Since first teaching 2012 GCSEs in England have had linear assessment; unitised assessment has remained in Wales and Northern Ireland.

Subject areas

Subject criteria are published for 40 subject areas as below. Some of these, like modern foreign languages can be subdivided into a number of individual subjects.

  • Additional applied science
  • Additional science
  • Art and design
  • Biology
  • Business subjects
  • Chemistry
  • Citizenship studies
  • Classical subjects
  • Construction and the built environment
  • Dance
  • Design and technology
  • Drama
  • Economics
  • Engineering
  • English
  • English language
  • English literature
  • Expressive arts
  • Geography
  • Health and social care
  • History
  • Home economics
  • Hospitality and /or catering
  • Humanities
  • Information and communications technology
  • Law
  • Leisure and tourism
  • Manufacturing
  • Mathematics
  • Media studies
  • Modern foreign languages
  • Music
  • Physical education
  • Physics
  • Psychology
  • Religious studies
  • Science
  • Sociology
  • Statistics

The full range of GCSE grades A* – G spans Levels 2-1 of the Qualification Frameworks for England, Wales and Northern Ireland: grades A* – C are Level 2; grades D – G are Level 1.


The full range of GCSE grades A* – G spans Levels 2 – 1 of the Qualification Frameworks for England, Wales and Northern Ireland: grades A* – C are Level 2; grades D – G are Level 1.

Single award and shortcourses are graded A*, A, B, C, D, E, F, G.

Double award qualifications are graded A*A*, AA, BB, CC, DD, EE, FF, GG.

The grades on short course and double award GCSE certificates are accompanied by explanatory notes on the nature of these types of GCSE.

Attainment that is insufficient to lead to the award of a certificate is reported as unclassified – U.


Three country agreement GCSEs may use question papers which are targeted at either a single tier covering grades A* – G or two tiers of grades A* – D (Higher) with an allowed grade E and C – G (Foundation); this varies from subject to subject.

A small number of subjects are assessed completely by external or internal assessment.

Most GCSEs graded A* – G are assessed by a mixture of external assessment and controlled internal assessment; controlled assessment will either comprise 25% or 60% of the total assessment, depending on the subject.

They require, across controlled and external assessments, a variety of question types and tasks, including extended writing.

In England, the assessment arrangements must ensure that each candidate completes external assessments in May or June each year, with exceptions for English, English Language and mathematics.

In Northern Ireland, CCEA GCSE science modules are taken in November and March. CCEA GCSEs in mathematics, English and, learning for life and work are available in January.

The assessment arrangements for English, English Language and mathematics permit qualifying candidates to complete the external assessment during the month of November; qualifying candidates must have reached the age of 16 on or before 31 August that year.

Unitised assessments for English and English language must provide that assessments in speaking and listening do not form part of the weighting towards the final GCSE mark for the qualification.

Contribution of assessment components to overall grade

Unitised specifications must allocate a weighting of at least 20% to each assessment unit.

In England unitised assessments must require that 100% of the assessment is terminal.

Resit arrangements

No resits of units are allowed.

Unit results cannot be carried forward from one examination series to another except:

  • to reuse units from a single award as part of a double award in the same subject
  • to carry forward a result in speaking and listening in order to retake the whole English language qualification with the same awarding body
  • to carry forward the result from one or more controlled assessment units in order to retake the whole qualification
Guided/notional learning hours
Short course: 60 hours
Single award: 120 hours
Double award: 240 hours
Guided/notional learning hours notes

The actual amount of time allocated to a GCSE varies between schools and subjects. However, the deemed standard size as stated above.

UCAS size bands

Not yet available.

UCAS grade bands

Not yet available.

Key issues for UK HE admissions

The number of GCSE subjects taken by student varies considerably but eight to ten subjects can be regarded as a broad and balanced curriculum.

Five grades at A* – C, generally including English and mathematics, is regarded as an appropriate benchmark for Level 3 study.

The English Baccalaureate (EBacc) is a DfE performance measure in England for a GCSE programme comprising English, English Language, mathematics, science, a language and geography or history.

Timing of assessments/results for learners

With the following exceptions, all GCSE assessments in England must be taken in May or June.

The exceptions are resit opportunities in English, English language or mathematics for students who have reached the age of 16 in that year.

Results are available in the latter part of August, one week after A level results.

Qualification dates notes

Changes being phased in for GCSEs graded A* – G developed under a three country agreement between England, Northern Ireland, and Wales mean they became legacy qualifications by first teaching 2017.

New GCSEs graded 9 – 1 were introduced for first teaching in England in September 2015 in the following subjects only: English language, English literature and mathematics. GCSEs graded A* – G in English language, English literature and mathematics were examined in England for the last time in June 2016. GCSEs grades A* – G in all other subjects will be examined in England for the last time by June 2019.

GCSEs graded A* – G will continue to be available in Wales and Northern Ireland, subject to revisions.

Reporting and certification information

Grade descriptions by subject and total entries by subject are published by the Joint Council for Qualifications

Progression information

Sufficient Level 2 achievement at GCSE is generally a requirement for Level 3 progression.

Sufficient Level 1 achievement at GCSE should lead to Level 2 progression.

Some universities, colleges and employers ask for specific achievement at GCSE for recruitment. This is generally in English and mathematics, but may also be in science or subjects related to the progression opportunity.