How to advise students about GCSE choices

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 ten subjects depending on how your school organises its curriculum. To secure the best grades, it’s best not to overload students — more than ten 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

How 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 levels at most providers.
  • A Grade 4 is equivalent to the lower end of the grade C. 

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, and exam board websites for more information.

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 (Grade 4 or 5) 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.

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 their choices meet any requirements and to confirm when submitting their choices that they have done the appropriate research.