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How Many GCSE Subjects Are There?

When young people in the UK enter year 9 at secondary school level, they will stop studying a full range of academic subjects, and instead be asked to choose which GCSE subjects they would like to study. But choosing your GCSEs is tough, especially when there are so many GCSE subjects to choose from and your GCSE options may limit your future academic and professional opportunities. It would be difficult to study history at A-level if you haven’t studied history at GCSE level, for example, and you cannot go on to study medicine if you don’t study for GCSEs in maths, biology, chemistry and physics. But what are GCSEs? Who takes them? And how many GCSE subjects are there available for you to choose from? Here’s everything you need to know about studying for GCSEs:

What Are GCSEs?

GCSE stands for General Certificate of Secondary Education, and these are academic qualifications that are typically taken by school students aged 14–16 in England, Wales, and Northern Ireland. Students in Scotland don’t generally take GCSEs because Scottish state schools use the Scottish Qualifications Certificate. However, some private schools in Scotland choose to use the English GCSE system, meaning that GCSEs are recognised in Scotland, and you can use these if you wish to go on and study for Scottish Highers qualifications.

GSCEs are universally recognised qualifications. GCSEs are usually studied full-time at school and take five terms to complete. They can also be taken at college or via distance learning, and as an adult student, you are able to take your GCSEs over a longer period of time if you need to, with many adult learners choosing to study for GCSEs on a part-time basis and combine their studies with work and family commitments.

GCSE qualifications involve studying many different faculties of a subject. You will be involved in both investigative work and practical work, depending on the subject you choose. Not all GCSEs are assessed in the same way, because their content varies so wildly, but no matter what subject you choose you can expect to be assessed via a mixture of written examinations and coursework. Coursework elements that you may be expected to complete include projects, artwork, fieldwork, investigations and experiments.

Who Takes GCSEs?

In England and Wales, you usually take your GCSEs in Years 10 and 11, with your final examinations taking place in year 11. You’ll need to choose the subjects you want to study for GCSE in Year 9 as a general rule, but in some schools, this might happen in Year 8. For this reason, the earlier you can think about the subjects you enjoy and would like to study at GCSE level, the better. Every school-aged child in the UK must sit GCSEs, although the number of GCSEs you take varies depending on your school, interests and ability. The majority of students will take 9/10 GCSEs, and this average amount is the amount you need to achieve if you wish to go to college, to university or seek full-time employment. However, there is no official limit on the number of A-levels you can take. A very small number of students will choose to take 11 GCSEs and an even fewer number of students will take 12 or more GCSEs. Whilst there is no upper limit on the number of GCSEs you can take, as you do have to take your GCSEs during school hours, the maximum number of GCSEs that you could do at once is most likely around 16. If you choose to take GCSEs later in life and as an adult learner then many of these rules will not apply, and you are free to take as many or as few GCSE subjects as you wish.

When choosing your GCSE subjects, you should consider not only the subjects you enjoy and excel in academically but also what your future career goals might be. Not all students know what they want to do after school when they are in year 8 or 9, but many do, and you should keep these aspirations in mind when choosing your GCSE subjects. If you wish to study medicine, for example, it’s important that you study biology, chemistry and physics as separate GCSE subjects. If you wish to become an accountant then maths and other maths-based subjects should be at the top of your preference list.

After they have completed their GCSEs, students have a wide variety of options open to them. They can either choose to carry on in full-time education and study for their A-levels at school or college or leave school education and take on an apprenticeship which they can train for alongside a paid job. Leaving school without a future plan is not an option, as all students in the UK have obliged to remain in either education or training until they are 18 years old.

GCSE students sitting exams

How Many GCSEs Are There?

There are approximately 60 GCSE subjects available in the UK but, unfortunately, that doesn’t mean that every student will have 60 GCSEs to choose from. Most schools will offer, at most, 20 subjects for their students to choose from. This still gives you plenty of choice. The average student studies 9 subjects at GCSE level, and once you have taken your mandatory subjects, you should have around 4 additional subjects to choose from. Some of the most commonly available GCSEs in the UK are:

Modern Foreign Languages

  • French
  • German
  • Spanish
  • Mandarin
  • Japanese

Humanity Subjects

  • History
  • Geography
  • Religious Studies
  • Economics
  • Geology
  • Psychology
  • Sociology

Arts Subjects

  • Music
  • Drama
  • Dance
  • Art and Design
  • Media Studies
  • Film Studies

Technical Subjects

  • Design and Technology
  • Food Technology
  • Computer Science
  • Physical Education
  • Astronomy
  • Business
  • Electronics
  • Engineering
  • Statistics

If you are studying GCSEs as an adult learner then you will have a much larger range of GCSEs to choose from. Although the most popular GCSE subjects for adult learners include subjects that will be beneficial to career progression: For this reason, the most popular GCSE subjects offered at the Online Learning College include maths, English, and business studies.

GCSE Student revising for an exam

Most Popular GCSEs

The most popular GCSEs in the UK are, understandably, the compulsory ones, as every young person must study these subjects and sit these examinations at the age of sixteen. In every school in the UK, maths, English language and science are considered to be core subjects, which means they must be studied by everyone. In most schools in England, it is also compulsory that you study English Literature, but as there are no legal requirements to do so, there may be exceptions to this rule. If you are residing in Wales, then it will be compulsory that you study Welsh. Whilst science is also a core subject there are two different ways in which you can approach this, depending on how passionate you are about the subject; you can either take three separate science GCSEs (biology, chemistry and physics) or study science in two combined science GCSEs. Some schools may make other subjects compulsory, so check with your teachers to find out what rules your school has before you begin choosing your GCSEs, to ensure you know what other courses are available to you.

Outside of these compulsory GCSEs of maths and English language, the most popular GCSE subjects in the UK are:

  • GCSE French (And Other Modern Languages).
  • GCSE Geography.
  • GCSE Art.
  • GCSE History.
  • GCSE Design and Technology (DT).
  • GCSE Additional and Combined Science.
  • GCSE Science.
  • GCSE English Literature.

In order to ensure that you have a rounded education, you are likely to find that your school will ask you to choose GCSEs from specific categories: some schools will ask that all pupils study a humanities subject, for example, or that they study at least one language. If your school does ask you to choose your GCSE subjects from a range of different categories, then some of the subjects you may be asked to choose from include:

  • A modern foreign language. Many schools will take choosing a modern foreign language compulsory. The subjects that are commonly taught in most schools are French, Spanish and German, but there is a huge range of languages available as GCSE subjects, with some more unusual subjects such as Japanese and Mandarin available in some schools.
  • Humanities. Many schools will block humanities subjects together so that each student is required to take at least one subject from either history, geography or religious studies.
  • Technology subjects. You may also find that technology subjects, such as graphic design, design and technology, computer science, woodwork or food technology are all grouped together, and pupils are required to study at least one subject from this group.

Popular subjects that are not compulsory, but which are incredibly popular in schools across the country include arts subjects such as music, drama, art and design and media studies. It’s also important to note that whilst all year 10 and 11 pupils have to take compulsory PE, if you are passionate about physical education, it is also possible to take the subject as a GCSE option.

If you are going back to college or to online college to study for your GCSEs as a mature i.e. post-16) student then you will have much more flexibility with the subjects you choose and will be able to take GCSEs in only the subjects that you are interested in or that you need. Many adults choose to go back to college and take GCSEs because they want to change their career path and need to study different subjects, or because they didn’t perform well in their examinations when they were at school and they would like to retake their GCSEs so they can update their CV. It is also possible to take GCSEs at college for fun: if you are interested in a subject, for example, and want to spend more time studying it, a GCSE is a great qualification to choose. The most popular GCSEs for adult students are: English and maths, as you need at least a passing grade in these subjects to go to higher education, and foreign languages because these are useful subjects that have an obvious application in the wider world.

Least Popular GCSEs

Whilst the most popular GCSEs tend to be the most obvious subjects, and the ones that most people will focus on, there is also a wide range of less popular GCSE subjects too. According to TES magazine, the five least popular GCSE subjects, based on the number of students sitting them are:

  • Welsh as a second language. If you live in Wales then Welsh is one of the compulsory subjects that every student must take. But in 2018 just 15 students enrolled to sit a GCSE in Welsh as a second language, making this by far the least popular GCSE subject that you can sit in the UK.
  • Manufacturing. In 2018, just 50 students sat a manufacturing GCSE, a sharp drop from the equally small figure of 120 students who took the same exam in 2017. This is a design and technology subject, but is considerably less popular than the other DT subjects under this umbrella, perhaps because not many schools have the capacity and the equipment needed to offer this subject at GCSE level.
  • Other sciences. Any science subject that is not biology, chemistry or physics is grouped together under the heading of ‘other sciences’. 2,525 pupils studied other sciences in 2018: The reason for this relatively low number is that many schools make the core sciences of biology, chemistry and physics compulsory for their pupils, meaning that they simply don’t have the capacity to study other science subjects.
  • General studies. General studies is an incredibly popular A-level subject and one that is considered to be mandatory in many schools and colleges. But GCSE general studies is less widely available and therefore less popular. Many students are turned off by general studies because it is such a non-specific subject, and only 2,945 students studied this subject in 2018.
  • Classical subjects. Another broad umbrella term, classical subjects is the title given to such as ancient history and classical civilisations. Ancient languages such as Latin and Greek don’t fall into this category. Unfortunately, the classics are dying subjects at GCSE level, with many schools pushing humanities subjects such as history instead. Just 3,635 pupils were enrolled to study GCSEs in these subjects in 2018.
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