12: GCSEs, Further and Higher Education

For pupils between 11 and 16 education will normally take place in secondary schools and academies. Pupils will be in Key Stages; KS3 on entry from year 7 through to year 9 and KS4 for years 10 and 11. KS4 is normally when pupils will begin work on GCSEs or equivalent qualifications such as functional skills and BTECs although it is becoming more common for pupils to begin GCSE courses in year 9.

From September 2015 all GCSEs will be linear, rather than modular. Most subjects will be assessed by exams at the end of Year 11. A limited number of subjects will  continue to award marks for coursework or controlled assessments. This will put more emphasis on revising for exams and learning lots of information (for example: equations, quotes, vocabulary and scientific processes) and committing it to memory.

GCSEs are measured by the grades A* (A star) down to G. There is also a U grade which stands for ‘Unclassified’. In many subjects, there are two different ‘Tiers’ of examination offered: Higher, where pupils can achieve grades A*–D(E), or a U and  Foundation, where they can achieve grades C–G, or a U. If a candidate fails to obtain a Grade G on the Foundation Tier or a Grade D on the Higher tier they will fail the course and receive a U. Candidates who narrowly miss a Grade D on the Higher Tier, however, are awarded a Grade E.

From September 2017, GCSEs in English and Maths will be measured from 1-9 with 9 being the top grades. A grade 4 is the equivalent of a current grade C and a 1 would equate to an F.

Further Education (FE) is from ages 16 to 18 and it is now compulsory to ensure that young people continue to be educated if they are not in full-time employment or training. Research has shown that extending education and training leads to a better quality of life. 

Higher Education (HE) refers to education that follows the completion of further education or training. This can also be referred to as tertiary education and takes place in colleges and universities, generally resulting in the awarding of certificates, diplomas, or academic degrees.

This diagram shows the different routes through schools and colleges from age 11.


Taken from ‘Education England: Raising Expectations

[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Secondary_education , http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Higher_education

What next after GCSEs?

There are two main options: full-time further education, and work-based learning but there remains the option of a full or part-time job with training opportunities.

Full-Time Further Education: The options that fall under full time further education are general qualifications like A’ levels, AS levels and the International Baccalaureate. Depending on where you are in the country sixth forms and colleges (including sixth form colleges) may offer all or some of these. These are for more academically minded students who like to study and are not daunted by coursework and exams.

For those who prefer a more practical option there are diplomas which provide vocational training for students in full time education, such as Information Technology, to Creative and Media etc. These are usually combined with work experience and project work and may be referred to as Work Based Learning.

The options available to those who would prefer a non-traditional approach to their learning are increasing as time goes on. They take the form of BTECs, apprenticeships, NVQ/RQs, HNCs/HNDs, and other courses like the Cambridge Nationals and Technicals. Many employers and companies of varying sizes offer the opportunity to train while you work. FE colleges will offer Functional Skills courses in English and Maths:  a level 2 FS qualification is equivalent to a Grade C GCSE.

If there isn’t a suitable work-based learning option, a young person can apply for a full or part-time job in an industry that interests them and that they want to gain experience in, e.g. Retail or Engineering.


Apprenticeships combine practical training in a job with study. An apprentice will:

Apprenticeships take 1 to 4 years to complete depending on their level.

Levels of apprenticeship

An apprenticeship has an equivalent education level and can be:

  • Intermediate – equivalent to 5 GCSE passes
  • Advanced – equivalent to 2 A level passes
  • Higher – can lead to NVQ Level 4 and above, or a foundation degree

Who can apply

A young person can apply for an apprenticeship while still at school. To start one, they need to be:

  • 16 or over
  • living in England
  • not in full-time education

Taken from: https://www.gov.uk/topic/further-education-skills/apprenticeships

Grades may influence the options

If the GCSEs achieved were grades A* to C then the choices include A Levels, International Baccalaureate, BTEC level 3, NVQ/RQ3, specialist diplomas or an Advanced Apprenticeship as the next step. If the GCSE grades are mostly between D and G, options include re-sitting of the original GCSEs, taking some new ones, or going into a more vocational or work based learning environment.

Without 5 GCSEs from A*-C, A levels are not an option. However, diplomas, BTEC level 2, an Intermediate Apprenticeship, or Cambridge Nationals / Technicals Level 2 are all available,. These would bring the qualifications up to the required level for the next stages (A Levels or a vocational path). Whatever the grades at GCSE, the Armed Forces have a rolling recruitment scheme, offering training at all levels of further education.

Back to news