Why are GCSEs important?

Why are GCSEs important? 


With the GCSE exam season now well underway for another year, it’s worth taking a moment to think about why GCSEs are important.

GCSEs are essentially the centrepiece of the UK’s education system. They’ve been around for a long time too. First introduced in 1987 – replacing O-Levels – they have taken various forms, from 100% coursework to virtually no coursework at all. The latest major change involved changing the grading system from A*-G to 9-1.

Ironically, the latest version of GCSEs – introduced in 2017 actually have more in common with the old O-Level exams than their predecessor GCSEs.  O-Levels were the first public examinations introduced in the UK after the Second World War.

The principle of standardised tests taken at the age of 16 at the end of two years of study has changed little in decades. There are many arguments around whether they are the best way to assess students’ ability.

As an aside, Finland repeatedly comes out on top when global school education systems are ranked. In Finland, there are no standardised tests at all for any year group – except for one single test called the National Matriculation Exam. This can be taken at the end of high school, but it is entirely voluntary. Children don’t even start school until the age of seven!

Despite all this, there seems little chance of our well-established system changing in the UK. 

So, what are the implications of doing well or doing poorly in GCSEs?

GCSEs are seen as the benchmark – both for students and schools. Students often need 5 passes at GCSE (Grade 4 or above, including English and Maths) to progress to sixth form or college – especially if students want to study Level 3 qualifications, such as A-Levels or T-Levels. 

And just as young people are judged by how they do against these measurements, so are schools. The number of pupils that get 5 GCSE passes including English and Maths is one of the key measurements that determines School League Tables.

GCSEs can also affect the subjects you are able to study in further education. For example, most schools and colleges will require a student to have studied a subject at GCSE before being allowed to study it at A Level. Often, they will also set a minimum grade you need to get at GCSE for that subject. This is mostly true for traditional academic subjects.

However, it’s also worth knowing that there are many A-Level subjects that either don’t have a GCSE – or at least most schools don’t offer these subjects. If this is the case, colleges normally look at performance in Maths and English GCSEs.

Universities and other higher education providers also look at GCSE grades. Again, it is typical that they set a minimum requirement for Maths and English GCSE grades – and for the subject a student wants to go on to study.

Final thoughts

There’s no point trying to ignore it – GCSEs are important. But failure in them is never the end of the world. There are always opportunities to retake GCSEs and there are now a wealth of other options at further education level and beyond. There is a big wide world out there that doesn’t necessarily revolve around GCSEs.

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