For some of us, GCSEs (or O Levels) might be a distant memory. You might be surprised to find out just how much they've changed. While the GCSEs (General Certificate of Secondary Education) are still the qualifications that children tend to take in Years 10 and 11, you mightn't recognise them or even understand what GCSE results mean.

While GCSEs have changed a lot over the years, they changed fairly recently with the reforms in 2015. With this in mind, in this article, we'll look at the most recent GCSE reform and what the GCSEs, the exams, the grading system, and secondary education for those aged between 14 and 16 are like now.

2015 GCSE Reform

If you studied O Level or GCSE before 2015, you won't have taken the same type of examinations as children are taking now as there was a GCSE reform and an A Level reform in 2015.

What changed in the GCSE reform?
There were several key changes to the GCSE in 2015. (Source: F1Digitals)

The biggest change for GCSE students is the GCSE grades. While many of us will be used to the idea of grades being based on letters, new GCSEs are awarding students a number from 9 to 1 with the former being the highest grade and the latter being the lowest.

With more grade boundaries, it's easier to differentiate the abilities of different students and quickly see which students have studied the new GCSE and who studied the old GCSE.

The way students study for the qualification is different, too. In the past, many subjects were modular but now they're designed with two years of study in mind. Since the GCSEs have been reformed, there's less of a focus on “foundation tier” and “higher tier” exams and they can only be split into two exams if one of the paper limits a student's ability to show off all their knowledge. Finally, one of the biggest changes is that resits are only available in November and students are only allowed to retake their GCSE maths and GCSE English language exams.

Generally, the reform timetable came into effect with core subjects (English language, English literature, and mathematics) rolling out in September 2015 and other subjects rolling out in 2016, 2017, and 2018.

How can you study for GCSEs?
With the recent changes, be careful about which past papers you use for study. (Source: Pexels)

This means that students who studied in those years may have different GCSE subjects with different grade schemes. For example, students who started their GCSEs in 2015 will have taken a new style exam for English and maths with a numerical grade but GCSE science, religious studies and business studies will have been graded with letters.

Find out more about GCSEs and A Levels.

GCSE Exams

Sadly, even those who hate exams aren't free from having to take them if they're studying GCSEs. While recent changes have removed the modular aspects of the GCSEs, that just means that students won't have exams in January but they'll probably still end up doing the same amount of exams, they'll just be doing them in the summer instead.

How Long Are GCSE Exams?

The length of a given GCSE exam will depend on the subject and the exam board your GCSE is with. The exam boards in the UK include AQA, OCR, CIE, Edexcel, CCEA, ICAAE, and WJEC. Generally speaking, exams in academic subjects are between 1 and 2 hours in length with a GCSE level exam in modern foreign languages being under an hour they're usually broken down into speaking, listening, reading, and writing, for example.

What are GCSE exams like?
Some exams are longer than others. (Source: moinzon)

When it comes to art exams, they tend to be much longer (around 10 hours) with students spending a couple of days working on a final piece.

Science exams tend to be closer to one hour in length than two hours as there'll be multiple exams (a double award science GCSE is often split into multiple exams). However, if you're studying triple award science, which means you're doing GCSE Physics, Biology, and Chemistry as separate subjects, you can expect longer individual exams.

In the event of exceptional and mitigating circumstances, extra time or special help may be offered. For example, students with dyslexia or a learning difficultly may be offered extra time in their exams.

Similarly, some students may be offered someone to help them write, read, or given a word processor if required. If the student requires someone to write for them as they dictate, they'll be able to take their exam in a different room.

Learn more about GCSEs.

Where Do GCSE Exams Take Place?

Before you can get your exam results, you'll need to sit your GCSE exams. Generally speaking, almost all subjects taught at your school will have the exams take place in the school as well. However, certain specialist subjects may be taught off-campus or in another place. Check with the school as to the location of exams.

Where do GCSE exams take place?
Most GCSE exams take place in the school where they're being taught. (Source: PublicDomainPictures)

As you'd expect, the exams will be conducted under exam conditions. This means that you won't be allowed anything not specifically permitted by the exam and you won't be allowed to have additional books or notes with you and nor will you be allowed to have electronic devices such as mobile phones. Normally, invigilators will take these devices off students as those found in possession can be disqualified from the exam.

Students shouldn't bring mobile phones, opaque pencil cases/tins, music playing or storage devices, books, or bags, etc. Having banned items can lead to disqualification as can communicating with other candidates, copying their work, attempting to communicate, or using any unauthorised aids.

Generally, you should bring black pens, pencils, a ruler, a pencil sharpener, and a rubber. In other exams, you may need a compass, protractor, calculator, or coloured pencil. Don't use correcting fluid, gel pens, or highlighters. If a calculator is allowed, it needs to be battery or solar-powered. Under no circumstances can you use a mobile phone as your calculator.

No food or drinks are allowed except plain water in a sealed clear plastic bottle without a label. In the exams, you should be silent. If you need anything, raise your hand and wait for an invigilator to come and see to you.

If you need help with your GCSEs, A Levels, or any other subject or skill, consider getting in touch with one of the many talented and experienced private tutors on Superprof. You can find tutors all over the country and the world who are helping students with one or several different subjects and skills. There are tutors for academic subjects like maths, English, and science as well as tutors for hobbies, crafts, and skills like yoga, life coaching, or even sewing.

Similarly, you can find tutors across a range of different budgets, too. On Superprof, regardless of the subject or skill, there are three main types of private tutorial offered by private tutors: face-to-face tutorials, online tutorials, and group tutorials. Each type of tutorial comes with pros and cons in terms of cost, learning style, and effectiveness so it's up to you to carefully choose the right tutor and the right style of tutoring.

Face-to-face tutorials are between just the student and their tutor. This means that the tutor's focus is entirely on their student and the tutorial will be fully tailored to the student and their needs, allowing the student to get the maximum benefit out of the time spent with their tutor. While this is effective and allows students to learn quickly, it also comes at a cost. Since the tutor will be working tirelessly outside of the tutorials as well as in them to create bespoke tutorials for their students, this will be reflected in their rates. Face-to-face tutorials are usually the most costly but also the most cost-effective.

If you find face-to-face tutorials outside of your budget or can't find any local tutors to your liking, don't despair. You can always look for online private tutorials. Thanks to the internet and video conferencing, students can now be taught from anywhere in the world. Since the tutors don't have to travel and can schedule more tutorials per week as a result, online tutorials tend to be cheaper than face-to-face tutorials. You'd be surprised at all the different subjects and skills that you can learn remotely.

Finally, group tutorials are between a private tutor and several students. While you won't get to enjoy one-on-one tutoring like the other types of private tutorials, this can be good for subjects like foreign languages where having several different students to talk to can be a huge benefit. With several students paying for the tutor's time, the cost works out cheaper per student per hour. Generally, group tutorials are the cheapest type available.

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Joseph is a French and Spanish to English translator, language enthusiast, and blogger.