The Complete Parent's Guide to GCSEs

GCSEs: Simplified

GCSEs can be daunting, both for students in year 9 and 10, and parents. They can be a time of great stress, trepidation, and anticipation for what the future could possibly hold. However, they don’t have to be confusing.

This is where we come in…

This chapter will simplify the GCSE years. We’ll explain the new 9 - 1 GCSE Grading System (with a handy GCSE grades table), exam boards, and a timeline of key GCSE dates. Wondering which exam board your school uses? We've got an answer for that too! But first, we’ll start at the beginning…

Once upon a time, there were O Levels.

Parents will be particularly familiar with these qualifications. Introduced in 1951 as a replacement for the existing 16 + School Certificate, O Levels were predominately exam based. Commentators regularly criticized this, as they only offered a certain amount of proof of a child’s academic abilities.

GCSEs were introduced in 1988, as the more student-friendly O levels. The new qualification established a national qualification for school leavers at 16 and offered a wider subject range - a welcome change to students with more specific learning interests.

GCSE grading worked on a letter scale, from A to G, with a GCSE C a rough equivalent to a C at O Level.

Until the dawn of 2016...

The New 9 - 1 GCSE Grading System

So now instead of being graded with A*, A, B, C, D, E, F or G, papers are now given a 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2 or 1 grading. The highest three grades (9, 8 and 7) are replacements for A* and A, with the top 20% of those being graded 9.

This might sound confusing, but essentially, a new gold standard grade has been born. In fact, it’s more a platinum standard - with some even classifying a grade 9 as the equivalent to achieving an A** (to make it a little easier to comprehend).

Exam Boards and Exam Dates

So what is an exam board?

An examination board is an organization that is responsible for setting GCSE examinations, marking them and distributing results to students. 

Which exam boards do schools use?

Currently, there are several different GCSE exam boards in the UK. Although they are all regulated the Office of the Regulators of Qualifications (Ofqual), they are all self-standing.

If you’re wondering which exam board a particular school uses, it’s worth noting that schools can use several exam boards for different subjects. The best way to find out which exam boards are currently being used for a school - ask! A simple phone call goes a long way.

The main UK exam boards are:

Oxford, Cambridge and RSA Examinations (OCR)

Assessment and Qualifications Alliance (AQA)


Welsh Joint Education Committee (WJEC)

Council for the Curriculum, Examinations & Assessment (CCEA)

You’ll find every exam date for each exam board via the links above, as well as awesome revision aids including most recent past papers for specific subjects.

GCSE Key Dates Timeline

GCSEs generally take place over a 2 - 3 year period, however, this varies dependant on a school, subject and exam board. Studies start in year 9 or 10 for most students, concluding in the spring/summer term of year 11. 

When are GCSE choices made?

Teenagers choose their GCSE options at the end of year 8 or 9. Often schools with run Options Evenings around this time of year, your child’s opportunity to find out from their teachers more about each course and how they are assessed. It’s always great for parents to ask plenty of questions too - but let students ask their questions first.

For top tips on choosing GCSEs, make sure you check out the next chapter.

When should GCSE revision start?

GCSE revision should ideally start in January. However, how soon/late revision begins depends on various factors including a child’s specific abilities and how efficient their revision is. Ultimately, it’s important a teenager has a certain level of autonomy to decide when this should begin.

When do GCSE exams begin?

The main exam period generally runs from around May the 14th to the 22nd of June in year 10 and 11. Check out the links above for exam timetables for different exam boards.

When are GCSE results released?

GCSE results are usually released in the 3rd week of August, on a pertinently named day… Results Day.

Up next: GCSE Options: Expert Q&As to Make GCSE Choices a Breeze

The Ultimate Picnic

Spend an afternoon making food for an ultimate homemade picnic. Scotch eggs creation, sausage roll-ing, and hefty club sandwich crafts will bring you closer together, and satisfy every possible food craving after a busy week!

Grab a bat and ball and your competitive streak, and you have yourself the perfect family bonding recipe. Check out these best ever picnic recipes for more inspiration. 

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