GCSE Maths Explained

Over the years, the GCSE Maths exams have changed. From the grading system to the syllabus, the new GCSE Maths syllabus focuses more on mathematical thinking and problem-solving. There are very particular mathematical techniques that are taught in the classroom that are reflected in the exam papers, and anyone sitting the maths exams will be faced with a calculator and a non-calculator paper.


There are some questions that appear on GCSE Maths papers that require students to be able to deal with, as they are contextually set in the real world. There is a more significant emphasis on using mathematics to solve the problems in the exams than there has been before. For example, students could find themselves answering questions on a garden design or household finances, and would need to apply their knowledge of mathematics to everyday situations to be successful.


As it stands, GCSE Maths is still one of the most important qualifications that can be achieved depending on the A-Levels applied for, and the degree programmes students wish to study later on.

Exam Boards & Topics

There are three separate exam boards that provide papers for both calculator and non-calculator papers for GCSE Maths. Those are AQA, Edexcel, and OCR. When it comes to the topics that are covered, all three exam boards offer a Foundation paper and a Higher paper. 


The topics that are broadly covered between the three exam boards include:

  • Algebra
  • Geometry and Measures
  • Numbers
  • Probability
  • Ratio, proportions, rates of change
  • Statistics


The content is taught across these broad topic areas, with three exam papers to cover them. 


The Higher GCSE has more comprehensive questions, but we’ll talk through the differences between the levels a little later on. Despite popular opinion, the content covered in GCSE Maths is present in all three exam board papers, the only difference is in the way the questions are asked. Some exam boards prefer multiple choice questions where others prefer to look for full situational responses.

How Many Exams Are Sat?

For GCSE Maths, students are assessed entirely by written exams. This means that there is no coursework present - one of the many changes to the GCSE over the years. The three exams are sat between late May and early June, with each paper lasting around 90 minutes per paper. 


The first exam is a non-calculator paper, but for the second and third papers, a good quality calculator may be used. Most schools and colleges set mock exams throughout the GCSE Maths years, so this allows students the chance to see how they are progressing and whether any specific topics require more focus and teaching.

The Difference Between Foundation & Higher GCSE Maths

The GCSE Maths exams of today are vastly different from a few years ago, but the exam is still tiered. Previously, there were three tiers:

  • Higher
  • Intermediate
  • Foundation


Today, the intermediate paper has been scrapped, and each of the two new tiers is targeted towards numerical grades instead of alphabetical grades. The Higher GCSE Maths paper sites at grades 9 to 4 (A* to low C/high D) and the Foundation GCSE Maths papers are graded 5 to 1 (High C to G).


Across both tiers, students have the ability to achieve 5 to 3 grades, with exam papers including a mix of questions across both, too. Exam boards allow the same questions on both papers to an extent so that they can see that it’s not too difficult to achieve the same grade across both tiers. The content is harder with the GCSE Maths papers of today, and the focus is highlighted on solving problems. For example, the lower grades on the Higher paper are more demanding than before, as are the top grades on the Foundation paper.


The final decision about which papers a student will sit will depend on the opinion of their school teachers and the tests that are sat throughout Year 10 and 11.


It is up to your child's school which examinations your child will be entered into. They will base this decision initially on tests carried out in Year 10 but may adjust their decision if your child improves or if they produce lower marks in Year 11. It is possible that a student could start out doing the foundation syllabus but be moved up to the higher syllabus if they are doing particularly well.

GCSE Grades: An Explanation

The grades may surprise most parents nowadays, as the system is made up of numbers and not letter grades. 9 is the highest grade that a GCSE Maths student can achieve, and it matches the old A* grade. A 4 is considered to be a low grade C, with a 5 being a high grade C. The average GCSE Maths student achieving a level 6 is at a solid B average with their studies. Foundation papers are graded as 5 to 1, with a high C being the top grade that students can achieve on the Foundation track.


When a student takes a higher paper and falls below a grade 3, they will be given an Unclassified (U) and will not have passed the paper. Schools and colleges will discuss with parents and students the paper which they believe they are most suited. Students who are aiming for a level 4 or 5 will be on the boundary of studying for the Higher paper or the Foundation, and this is going to be determined with the school. The Foundation paper is easier than the higher paper, so it’s very much depending on whether a student should be challenged and pushed for the higher, or they should go for an easier paper and get the top tier of the easiest option.


GCSE Maths is by no means easy to study for in school among all the other subjects, but with the right support and the right exam board, the way in which the questions are asked can make a difference to whether a paper is passed or failed.


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