Excel Education – gcse maths guide


– GCSE Maths guide

GCSE Maths – How does it work?

Most students take GCSE Maths in year 11 (5th year) though it is becoming quite common for schools to enter students a year earlier in year 10.

Like all GCSEs, possible grades are A*, A, B, C, D, E, F and G.

The Three Tiers

There are 3 ‘tiers’ or levels of GCSE Maths; Foundation, Intermediate and Higher. Teachers will choose a tier for each student based on their ability in Maths and expected grades. Students are typically put into a class of other students intending to enter at the same tier.

Foundation Tier is for students who are expected to get below a grade C. Those on this tier can achieve overall grades D to G but the content is more accessible. For example, there is no Trigonometry or advanced Algebra.

Intermediate Tier possible grades range from B to E. The content includes most of the Foundation tier work plus some extra topics. If a student doesn’t achieve grade E they are given a grade U (rather than F or G).

Higher Tier is for the ablest Mathematicians and possible grades range from A* to C. Anything below grade C is given grade U. This fact often makes schools and students go for the Intermediate tier if they are not 100% certain of achieving above grade C. As well as making the highest grades possible, this tier is the best preparation for AS Maths and Sciences due to its increased emphasis on Algebra.


Most Universities will insist on students having a grade C or above in Maths (and English) for entry onto ANY of their courses. The grade C cut-off is also used for entry into certain professions such as nursing and teaching and many AS level subjects where Maths is involved.

Sixth Form and Further Education colleges usually offer re-sit Maths courses for those without a grade C or above – virtually all will offer the Intermediate tier to these students.

For AS Maths, many colleges will insist that students have done the Higher tier and hence been exposed to all the Algebra which is the foundation of AS Maths.

Assessment (Exams and Coursework)

Most students will sit the final exams in June but there is also a November opportunity. The November sitting is often used for re-sits by students who achieved a grade D in the summer exams.

There are 5 main exam boards but there is a lot of similarity in the schemes that they offer. The topics covered in a GCSE Maths course are pretty much the same whatever the exam board.

Modes of Study / Exam Boards

The main exam boards tend to offer two options; Linear or Modular schemes. Their ‘Specifications’ can be downloaded from their websites (addresses below).

Linear schemes are made up of two exam papers and some coursework. One of the exam papers is non-calculator and the other allows scientific calculators. The two papers are worth 40% each and the coursework is worth 20%. The exam papers are usually 2 hours long, or 90 minutes for the Foundation tier.

Modular schemes typically consist of more, shorter tests and exams some of which are taken before the end of the course and some (“Terminal”) exams at the usual June sitting. The test results obtained in the different modules are added to the results in the terminal exams and to the coursework marks to obtain a final grade. It is usually possible to re-sit tests if necessary. Coursework is still worth 20% of the final grade.