The GCSE is the most widely held qualification by students today in the UK, mainly because it's compulsory to go to school. The General Certificate of Secondary Education is usually awarded at the age of 16 to those finishing their compulsory secondary school education. It replaces the O Level.

GCSEs and their preparation (the completion of coursework and exam revision) usually begin at Year 10 (15 years of age) but there are always child prodigies that get a GCSE in IT when they are 7 just to rub it in everyone else's faces. GCSEs can be taken in a variety of subjects, laid down by the national curriculum: English, Mathematics, Science, Modern Languages, History, Geography, Music, Art, Physical Education, and Technology. Within some subject areas, like Technology, there are various choices such as Graphics (drawing stuff), Resistant Materials (building stuff), Textiles (sewing stuff) and Home Economics (cooking stuff). Some subjects can be dropped such as Music and Art in favour of something less creative, Maths, English and Science are compulsory. The only exceptional subjects are Religious and Physical Education, who are compulsory but do not necessarily need to be taken as a GCSE. This means that non-GCSE PE is generally far more fun, going ten-pin bowling and learning Tae Kwon Do.

GCSEs are generally seen as academic qualifications. GNVQs and BTECs were introduced for those who prefer more practicality and less theory. Generally (at this level: The GNVQ is better at a higher age range) these are chosen by drop-outs who aren't allowed to leave at secondary level.

There are various exam boards (such as Edexcel) with which a school can take their exam with. Schools will therefore hunt for the easiest exam board for each subject, or the board which teaches a syllabus that the teachers think the pupils will particuarly respond to.

GCSEs aren't taken in Scotland, they have a completely different schooling system to the rest of Britain.

In the end, the GCSE is not widely considered to be a qualifaction of any worth in the big wide world, with employers favouring the new vocational qualifactions or higher level qualifactions such as A Levels and university degrees. There are some calls to abolish the qualifaction altogether and simply keep the exams to allow the teachers, and the sixth form colleges to assess student performance and only hand out certificates to those students who wish to leave the education system. This argument has gained more weight as the Curriculum 2000 A Level involves up to four examination periods within two years, which has been said to strain students unnecessarily.

The GCSEs came about as an amalgamation of the former seperate qualifications GCE and CSE. To retain the structure of having a more difficult exam (GCE) and a simpler one (CSE), GCSEs generally operate on two tiers. Foundation tier allows grades up to C, and Higher tier up to A*. The most popular examinations, for example GCSE Mathematics, also include an Intermediate Tier for grades up to B. Component-based exams, for example French or other modern languages, allow candidates to take a different tier in each component, and thus require a fairly complex points system to turn this into an overall mark.

The reason this system is considered preferable to the older one is that the tier taken should be transparent to a potential employer. Grade C gleaned from lower tier is the same grade C available in higher tier. As mentioned above, a CSE Grade 1 should have been seen as the same as a C in GCE, but few employers were willing to consider it as such.

There are various calls for reform of the GCSE system. A recent government report suggested moving the GCSEs forward two years to age fourteen, and allowing the brightest pupils to skip them altogether and progress to A levels. Whether such a radical change is possible remains to be seen.

As average grades increase every year, there are inevitably claims that the exams are being made easier. As someone who is currently slap bang in the middle of taking them, I must admit that this is probably true. However, the government plan is to bring them into line with the AS levels and thus provided a smooth progression of difficulty from GCSE through to A level. Also, it would seem to me that the old system was rather more dependent on the now-unfashionable skill of learning by rote, whereas today's exams are more interested in transferable skills and ability to think. That's not to devalue either age of GCSEs, but employers should be aware that employees with the same grades in the same subjects but from many years apart probably bear very different sets of skills.

In terms of raw learning, GCSEs are undeniably becoming easier. As an example from personal experience, the required list of Latin vocabulary had 300 words removed from the previous year. On the other hand, what purpose did memorising all those words ever serve? If the point of learning Latin is to improve our understand of English grammar, surely we need only a limited cross-section of actual Latin words? A balance needs to be struck somewhere, and while I fear in some areas the current system is too easy on students, any system needs time for fine-tuning. This year is the last in which candidates in French will be permitted a bilingual dictionary in their exam; their removal can only serve to make the exams more challenging.

It's hard to present a balanced argument on this, especially as someone currently taking their GCSEs. The new system promotes a different set of skills to the previous one, and as long as all parties involved realise this, there needn't be a great deal of conflict. Oolong points out that the main problem with the reduction of pure knowledge required at lower levels is the gulf that then forms when students move up into higher levels. This is indeed something that will need to be addressed in future revisions of the syllabus for each subject. Since the boards set the grade boundaries, they can hand out whatever grades they desire. It may be some time before the examining boards strike the correct balance, but we should at least appreciate that they face the enormous and largely thankless task of replacing an out-dated system with a new one.

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