We use cookies to allow us and selected partners to improve your experience and our advertising. By continuing to browse you consent to our use of cookies. You can understand more and change your cookies preferences here.

For teachers

Advising students about GCSE choices: the basics

Get to grips with the key issues around choosing GCSEs. This introductory guide will help you understand the facts and advise your students effectively.

GCSEs are important - both to the individual student and to your school, which will be judged on its results and on how well different groups of students perform at GCSE. So the stakes are high! GCSEs are also the essential currency to enable progression on to A-levels, BTECs and other post-16 courses.

Most schools offer GCSEs as a two-year programme in Years 10 and 11. But, recent curriculum changes and the extra challenge of the new GCSEs, especially maths, has led more schools to introduce a three-year GCSE programme from Year 9 for at least some subjects.

How many GCSE subjects is best?

Most students will do nine or 10 subjects depending on how your school organises its curriculum. In order to secure the best grades it’s best not to overload students; more than 10 can be counterproductive. 

Equally, unless there are specific educational or health circumstances involved, fewer than eight leaves little scope for choices and narrows experience. It would also need to be explained if and when a student applies for university.

GCSE curriculum changes explained

GCSEs are undergoing significant changes in grading, difficulty and content. New GCSEs in English and maths were introduced in 2015 and, by September 2017, all subjects will be reformed or discontinued.

How new GCSEs are graded

Grading is on a scale of 9 to 1:
  • Grades 7, 8 and 9 are equivalent to A / A* BUT fewer students will get a 9 compared with the 7-8% in the past who achieved A*s.
  • The threshold for Grade 7 is equivalent to that required for an A grade.
  • Achieving at least Grades 5 or 6 is essential to pursue A-level programmes in most institutions.
  • Initially the same proportion of students will be awarded a grade 4 and above as achieved C or above in the old system.
  • A Grade 4 is equivalent to the lower end of the grade C and a Grade 5 is being seen by many as the new benchmark for what is termed a ‘good pass’.

What else is different?

New GCSEs are more difficult too - there is more content and no coursework or controlled assessment - except in creative and practical subjects. Qualifications are linear, with examinations usually at the end of two years of study.

Make sure you are aware of these changes and the implications for students. Check out the Ofqual website, exam board websites and the Which? University guide to GCSE changes.

What's compulsory?
  • English (language and/or literature)
  • Maths
  • Science (combined – two GCSEs as minimum)
  • Arts (e.g. drama, music, art)
  • Design and technology (e.g. electronics, food and nutrition)
  • Humanities (e.g. geography, history, RS)
  • Modern foreign languages (e.g. French, Spanish)
Students have to be offered choices within each of these four areas and some schools make some of them compulsory. However, students do not actually have to choose one in each category unless a school requirement.

For example, excellent linguists may wish to take two languages and this may mean, depending on the number of subjects a school wishes them to follow, they might not select an arts or a design and technology option.

Other options include
  • Computing
  • Physical education
  • Classical civilisation
  • Citizenship

What about the EBacc?

The English Baccalaureate (EBacc) is a performance measure to assess the percentage of students in each school who study and achieve good grades (probably Grade 4 or 5 in future) in English, maths, sciences (includes computing), a language and a humanities subject. It’s a good idea to ensure that as many students as possible have access to a programme which offers them the EBacc subjects.

How important are GCSEs when applying to uni?

GCSE choices and grades are relevant to university admissions. Tucked away in admissions requirements on uni websites you will find details of GCSE expectations - these are most demanding for subjects like medicine or veterinary science but many courses will have some basic minimum requirements.

For example, this is what University College London (UCL) states in its admissions requirements: 
All programmes require GCSE or equivalent passes in English language and mathematics at grade C or higher. Some programmes require grades higher than C or additional GCSE passes in specific subjects, as outlined on individual degree pages. For the new GCSE… UCL will consider 8 to be equivalent to A*, 7 to A, 6 to B and 5 to C. University College London
 So, making the right GCSE choices is vital for students who know what they wish to study later on or who have a career in mind. Go through these steps together:
  • Make them aware of the requirements for A-levels in your school.
  • Show them how to check university website information.
  • Direct them to check that their choices meet any requirements and to confirm when submitting their choices that they have done the appropriate research.