March 16, 2020

GCSE Science Explained

GCSE Science has followed in the footsteps of English and Maths by undergoing an extensive overhaul. Since 2018, all GCSE Science exams fall under the 9-1 system. We’ll talk more about this system later on in the guide, but it replaces the old grading system that was in place for many years. 

Lots of changes have been made to the GCSE syllabus, primarily relating to the difficulty of the content. It’s been completely revised and updated to include more challenging elements than before. The way the course is taught - and how exams are sat - has also changed. Previously, many GCSE science exams were sat during the course. This meant that some were sat one year, then others another, and so on. Now, there’s a linear approach where the entire course is taught, and all exams are sat at the end of Year 11. 

The unique thing about GCSE Science is that it includes practical elements. Previously, these used to form part of a coursework system. However, this is no longer the case. The exam boards have outlined a few practical experiments that students must undertake, though they don’t technically go towards the final grade. Instead, there will be questions relating to these practicals on the exams, which will make up around 15% of the total marks. 

In short, a lot has changed - and things get even more complicated when you look at the different examining bodies and how they assess pupils. 

GCSE Science Exam Boards & Content

The usual three exam boards all have GCSE Science qualifications up for grabs: 

  • AQA
  • Edexcel
  • OCR

Furthermore, there are different ways of attaining a Science GCSE. Most pupils will go for the Combined Science award. This is where all three of the sciences - Biology, Chemistry, Physics - are learnt together. Exams are sat for each discipline, and two GCSEs are given at the end of the course if the pupil passes. 

The second option is to study all three sciences separately. It’s sometimes called Triple Award Science or Separate Sciences, and you receive three GCSEs for each science at the end. 

The course content obviously differs across different scientific subjects. But, there is one underlying theme throughout - a focus on mathematics! You will find lots of questions that call upon maths skills in all the different exam papers, and it’s believed they account for almost 20% of the total questions on all the papers combined. These maths-focused questions are also weighted differently based on the subject - it’s currently at a 1:2:3 ratio (Biology: Chemistry: Physics). 

The topics covered will look like this: 


  • Cell biology
  • Organisation
  • Infection and response
  • Bioenergetics
  • Homeostasis and response
  • Inheritance, variation, and evolution
  • Ecology


  • Atomic structure and the periodic table
  • Bonding, structure, and the properties of matter
  • Quantitative chemistry
  • Chemical changes
  • Energy changes
  • The rate and extent of chemical change
  • Organic chemistry
  • Chemical analysis
  • Atmospheric chemistry
  • Using resources


  • Energy
  • Electricity
  • Particle model of matter
  • Atomic structure
  • Forces
  • Waves
  • Magnetism and electromagnetism

GCSE Science Exams Explained

While GCSE Science seems very complicated - thanks to the combined and separate models of study - the exam situation is actually very easy. All GCSE Science pupils are required to sit six different exam papers. These papers are split evenly at two apiece for every subject. 

So, there are two biology papers, two chemistry papers, and two physics papers. This is the same regardless of whether or not you’re sitting the combined science award or the separate one. Having said that, there is a difference between the exams depending on the award you’ve chosen. 

  • Combined Science Papers: All of the papers will be shorter than the Separate Science award papers. Both Edexcel and OCR have 1 hour and 10-minute papers for pupils to sit. AQA offers slightly longer exams at 1 hour and 15 minutes. 

  • Separate Science Papers: All six exams will last 1 hour and 45 minutes across all three of the exam boards. 

If you’re wondering why each subject has two papers, it’s purely to help split the content across two different exams. This is found to be a lot easier for students to manage compared to sitting one gigantic paper that covers the entire course!

GCSE Science Foundation & Higher Tier

Much like some other GCSE subjects, GCSE Science can be split into Foundation and Higher tier papers. This will decide what gradings are achievable for the student depending on which tier they fit into. 

Foundation Tier

This is specifically for students that are looking to get between grades 1-5. Therefore, it’s considered an ‘easier’ exam as it tests the ability of pupils who are perhaps not that scientifically-gifted. Students can decide to sit this tier if they believe that it is best for them. Someone who has always struggled to get beyond a passing grade in science will be more suited to Foundation tier than Higher. 

Higher Tier

This is for students aiming to get grades between 4-9. It’s the harder of the two tiers and is mainly reserved for pupils with a strong grasp of science. If you feel like you can achieve beyond the passing grade, then this is the better tier to opt for. 

GCSE Science Grades Explained

We mentioned the 9-1 grading system earlier, and we’ve just spoken about some of the grades above. Essentially, this is the new system for GCSE exams, replacing the old lettering system where grades were given from A* through to F.

Under the new system, 9 is the highest grade, and 1 is the lowest - though there’s also a U grade for ungraded tests. Higher tier students are graded from 9-4, while Foundation tier students are only graded from 1-5. A grade of 4 is seen as the lowest you need to pass the exams, while a grade of 5 is considered a strong pass. 

GCSE Science is one of the toughest GCSEs out there. It’s also one of the most rewarding in terms of future prospects. Lots of careers demand a GCSE science award - either combined or separate - to qualify for corresponding University degrees. This includes many healthcare jobs like dentistry, medicine, etc. The secret to passing these examinations is having the right teaching materials, resources, and support throughout your studies!

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