GCSEs and equivalents

School students in the UK usually obtain GCSEs (or equivalent qualifications) as their first qualifications at the age of about 16

They usually take anywhere between five and 12 subjects, chosen from a wide range on offer. There is no age limit, and many mature students and international students take them.

For some further courses, passes in mathematics or English at this level are essential.

GCSE (General Certificate of Secondary Education)

The first qualification in the British education system, usually completed by students aged 16.

Students usually study up to 12 subjects (eight on average). A wide range of more than 45 subjects can be studied. Some are compulsory in state schools as part of the National Curriculum: English, mathematics, science and physical education, plus information and communication technology (ICT) and citizenship for students in England, or Welsh for students in Wales.

Other subjects will also be offered; for instance, a modern foreign (non-English) or ancient language, other sciences, history, geography, engineering, design and technology, and various social-science and arts-based subjects, to name a few.

Find out more about costs and the application process for GCSEs and equivalent qualifications.

Note that different institutions will offer different menus of GCSE subjects – it is not uniform, so check what is being offered. Students do have some control over whether they continue studying subjects at several stages in their education.

GCSE grades A* to G in England have been replaced by a new grade scale numbered from 9 to 1, with 9 being the highest grade. According to The Office of Qualifications and Examinations Regulation (Ofqual), the government department that regulates qualifications and exams, the new grades were introduced to as part of a reform of the qualification to better differentiate between students of different abilities. Grades 9, 8 and 7 range from A* to A, 6, 5 and 4 range from B to C and 3, 2 and 1 range from D to G.

IGCSE (International General Certificate of Secondary Education)

The international equivalent of the GCSE, administered by University of Cambridge International Examinations. The IGCSE has the same grading system as the GCSE. The exam board Edexcel also offers its own version of the IGCSE.

Applied GCSE

You can also study for an applied GCSE that concentrates on work-related aspects of subjects. Applied GCSEs are offered in:

  • applied art and design
  • applied business
  • applied ICT
  • applied science
  • engineering
  • health and social care
  • leisure and tourism
  • manufacturing.

One applied GCSE is equivalent to two conventional GCSEs, depending on options chosen. As with other GCSEs, grades range from 9 (the highest) to 1. Two grades (ie 9-9) are possible for double awards.

Scottish National qualifications

Scotland has its own educational and examination system, which is independent of the system that operates in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. State schools in Scotland follow the Scottish system, while only some independent-sector schools follow the Scottish system, with others opting for the system used in the rest of the UK and some mixing aspects of both systems.

In broad terms, National 5 (N5) qualifications are the Scottish equivalent of the GCSE. The N5 is the more academically advanced of the qualifications, with candidates being awarded the qualification at grades A, B, C and D. Scottish National 5 certificates grade A to C are equivalent to GCSEs grade grade 4 to 9.

The courses which lead directly to the N5 qualifications only last one year. Students begin studying for the qualifications at the beginning of fourth year although they will often lead on directly from the courses they were studying beforehand.

The Scottish National 4 qualification does not involve formal exams at the end of the course – these courses rely on continuous assessment.

You can find out more about these qualifications and the Scottish qualifications system as a whole at the Scottish Qualifications Authority website.


BTECs (Business and Technician Education Council) and NVQs (National Vocational Qualifications) are taken as an alternative to GCSEs and A-levels. Students can study subjects in many occupational areas, including design, health care, construction, engineering, horticulture, travel and tourism, IT, science and administration.

OCR Nationals are similar qualifications to BTECs.

Scottish Group Award

In Scotland, there is an equivalent programme of Scottish Group Awards.

Find out more about costs and the application process for GCSEs and equivalent qualifications.

Image credit: Graham Oliver