When you're at school, there are two main types of academic qualifications you can get: GCSEs and A Levels. For those of us who haven't done exams for a while, GCSEs were formerly the O Level before being replaced along with the Certificate of Secondary Education (CSE) in 1988. Since its introduction, the GCSE has changed a lot and past papers from 1988 in most GCSE subjects will look nothing like a modern GCSE exam.

The GCSE (General Certificate of Secondary Education) is taken in England, Wales, and Northern Ireland. Generally, students will study a GCSE for two years (Years 10 and 11 in England) with GCSE grades ranging from 9 to 1 (or from A* to G in Wales and Northern Ireland) with the former being the highest grade and the latter being the lowest.

While the grading system is different across different countries in the UK, GCSE results can be easily translated from one to another and as they aren't usually used as the entry requirements for university courses, you don't need to worry too much about them.

In this article, we'll look at the GCSEs, the subjects that have to be studied, what GCSE courses are like, and how GCSE exams work.

Obligatory subjects at GCSE

During Key Stage 4, which is when students normally take national examinations like the GCSE, there are certain compulsory national curriculum subjects known as “core” and “foundation" subjects.

The core subjects include English, maths, and science and the foundation subjects include computing, physical education (PE), and citizenship. In addition to the core and foundation subjects, schools also need to offer GCSE students at least one subject from these four areas: arts, design and technology, humanities, and modern foreign languages. Similarly, they need to also offer religious education (RE) or religious studies and sex education.

Find out more about GCSEs and A Levels.

GCSE Maths

GCSE Mathematics covers topics including algebra, ratio, proportion, rates of change, geometry, trigonometry, statistics, and probability, to name a few. Maths GCSEs are offered by AQA, CCEA, Edexcel, Eduqas, OCR, and WJEC.

As a core and obligatory subject, there are plenty of resources and websites available for students including the BBC Bitesize website which includes revision resources for each of the exam boards.


What subjects are obligatory at GCSE?
Maths remains a core subject at GCSE. (Source: Shutterbug75)

Find out more about the GCSE reform.

GCSE English

You mightn't find it surprising that English remains a core subject at GCSE but you might be surprised that this includes both English language and English literature. Since the days of reading, writing, and arithmetic, maths and English have been essential subjects on the national curriculum and even after the GCSE reform, this remains the case.

English Language GCSE

The English language isn't just about how to speak the language but rather is about an understanding of the English language and involves elements on analysing both fiction and non-fiction, comparing texts, writing, spelling, punctuation, and grammar, and the spoken language.

English Literature GCSE

Generally, every English Literature GCSE includes Shakespeare, poetry, drama, and prose. Usually, students won't have a choice on which works or anthologies they study as this will be decided by the exam board and the school.

Again, similarly to maths, there are plenty of resources for GCSE English Language and English Literature and with most works being studied by most students across the country, there are also plenty of resources on studying certain books and poems, too.

Do you have to study English at GCSE?
English remains an important subject on the national curriculum and at GCSE. (Source: EliFrancis)

GCSE Science

While most GCSEs act as individual qualifications, when it comes to GCSE Science, there are a few options. You can study double award science or dual award science where your GCSE in science counts for two GCSEs. In this case, you'll study two topics per subject. While different exam boards offer different awards (AQA calls their exams Synergy and Trilogy), they still count the same.

Do you have to study science at GCSE?
While there are different ways to study science at GCSE, you still have to pick one of them. (Source: jarmoluk)

If you decide to study the sciences separately, i.e. GCSE Biology, GCSE Chemistry, and GCSE Physics, you'll be awarded three GCSEs. In this case, you'll also have to take exam papers for each subject and will be awarded a GCSE in each rather than a Science GCSE that's worth two GCSEs.

Of course, studying a double award doesn't mean that you won't get to study topics in Biology, Chemistry, and Physics, it just means that they'll only count for two GCSEs.

Finished your GCSEs?

Find out more about the A Levels.

Optional Subjects at GCSE

As we mentioned before, schools need to offer one subject from each of the following areas:

  • Arts
  • Design and technology
  • Humanities
  • Modern Foreign Languages
What are the optional subjects at GCSE?
Schools have to offer subjects from a range of different academic fields. (Source: 777546)

This means that you can study several different subjects. Unfortunately, since you have to study English literature, English language, maths, and science, you won't be able to fill your timetable with just arts, foreign languages, or sciences. Similarly, there'll probably be other constraints on what you can study due to timetabling and clashes.

In most cases, you'll be able to study at least one subject from each of the groups that we mentioned before. Generally, when choosing your GCSE subjects, you should think about whether or not you'd like to go to university and which subjects you'll need at A Level to get onto a course and choose GCSE subjects that lead into your A Levels.

Find out more how A Levels have changed in recent years.

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.

Don't forget that many of the tutors on Superprof offer free tuition for the first hour. This is a great way to try out different subjects, tutors, and types of tutorials. You must choose the right tutor in terms of personality, learning style, and budget. It's pointless trying to learn something with a tutor that you don't get along with so try out a few different tutors before settling on your preferred tutor.

All you have to do is search what you want to learn and where you want to learn it on the Superprof website. You can also search according to the type of private tutorial you're looking for.

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