Cambridge - GCSE Courses

Here you can read about taking your GCSEs at MPW Cambridge. You can also see which subjects we currently offer at GCSE.

Reform of GCSE

At MPW Cambridge we offer intensive one-year GCSE courses, so we adopt new two-year specifications the year after they are officially introduced. This academic year (2016/2017) the vast majority of our GCSE courses are following old specifications. The exceptions are in English and English Literature where we have now adopted new specifications. Also, in Maths, our students are entered for the Edexcel IGCSE which is a qualification that is completely unaffected by the governmental reforms.

Students come to MPW for GCSE courses primarily because of our average of six students per class and absolute guarantee of fewer than 10. There can be other reasons too, e.g. that we are co-ed, that we don’t have school uniform etc, but it’s when pupils really need the extra personal attention that they can get in our small classes and via our outstanding pastoral support system that we can offer the most help.

As a GCSE pupil at MPW, you’ll feel that we’re less like a school than your old school, but you won’t have as much freedom as our A level students. For example, we provide a much closer level of supervision in between lessons and you will have timetabled sessions in our Study Centre during which you can complete some of your homework. There is one compulsory sport session per week, plus two optional sporting activities which are also open to GCSE students. There is also a compulsory Life Skills/PSHE programme.


  1. How are things changing?
  2. Why are things changing?
  3. What is the timetable for reforms?
  4. Why is it so complicated?
  5. Are the new GCSEs harder than the unreformed exams?
  6. What will MPW be doing and why?
  7. What about retakes?

1. How are things changing?

In 1986, the government introduced GCSEs to replace the O level system. All students were put on the same scale with a range of seven grades from A (the highest pass mark – later increased to A*) to G (the lowest pass mark). The idea was to make qualifications more accessible by increasing the choices available, both in terms of subject and level. One of the ideas of the reform in traditional academic subjects is to return to examinations in the style of the old O levels.

The grading system for GCSE qualifications is also changing: students will now be awarded the numbers 1-9 as a performance indicator rather than a letter. 9 is the highest mark available and is approximately equivalent to a top A*. 1 is the lowest pass mark available and is a grade equivalent to just above an old GCSE G grade. The letter ‘U’ for ungraded papers will still be used under the new system.

The second significant change, in line with the A level reform, will be a reduction in coursework and a continued reversal of the modular nature of GCSEs, which facilitated re-sits. This linearity has been in place since 2012 and will continue under the reform.

Finally, the specification content of some subjects will broaden in order to stretch students. For example, in English Literature students will be expected to read a wider range of texts and in Maths they will learn a little more about certain practical applications such as financial mathematics. In some cases, it is likely that examination duration will increase to accommodate this.

2. Why are things changing?

The fundamental reason behind the change is a desire on the part of the government to raise standards and better align GCSE qualifications with their international equivalents. It will also allow for increased differentiation between students, with the highest grade (9) being awarded only to students who are at the top of the current A* band. This will lead to greater demand for the equivalent of a current grade C (4 or above) which is broadly in line with high performance in countries such as Canada, Finland, the Netherlands and Switzerland.

Many critics of the GCSE say that its value has decreased over time and public perception of the qualification is that it is becoming ‘easier’ to obtain high grades. Other criticisms include the use of coursework in some subjects and the modular structure of GCSE courses facilitating re-sits. The government has responded to these criticisms by developing a new GCSE. The structure will give students the time to develop a more profound understanding of the material in their subjects and, through removing the opportunity for modular re-sits, provide a fairer means of assessing and discriminating between students. Assessment by exam wherever practicable will remove the coursework element of most subjects and an increase in difficulty for some syllabus content will stretch and challenge students, better preparing them for A level study.

3. What is the timetable for reforms?

These changes are being phased in between September 2015 and September 2017 in three waves. In September 2015 the first batch of reformed GCSEs was introduced. Students will sit their GCSEs in these subjects in the summer of 2017. In September 2016 the second wave of reformed subjects was introduced. Students will sit their GCSEs in these subjects in the summer of 2018. And finally, in September 2017, for first examination in the summer of 2019, all remaining subjects will be taught to the new specifications.

The table below shows which subjects will reform when.



2015  English literature 
English Language
2016 Ancient Languages (Classical Greek, Latin)
Art and Design 
Citizenship Studies
Computer Science
Double Science
Food Preparation and Nutrition
Modern Foreign Languages (French, German, Spanish)
Physical Education
Religious Studies
2017 Ancient History
Classical Civilisation
Design and Techonology
Film Studies
Media Studies

It is important to remember that at MPW Cambridge we introduce each reformed subject one year after it has been introduced because our students follow one-year, not two-year, GCSE courses.

4. Why is it so complicated?

These are significant changes which have no precedent in the recent history of education in England; there is a concurrent overhaul of the A level system. Ever since a return to linearity was announced, Ofqual, the regulatory body charged with overseeing standards in public examinations, repeatedly adjusted the way in which the reforms were to be introduced because of issues raised by government, schools and colleges. The result is the complex, three-wave process which in effect leaves schools without a unified system of GCSEs until 2017.

5. Are the new GCSEs harder than the unreformed exams?

The new GCSEs will, in some respects, be more challenging than in previous years. This is primarily because:

  • There will be an increase in syllabus content in many subjects - for example Mathematics, with pupils expected to learn key formulae by heart, or English, where students will be expected to read a greater range of literature
  • Examination times will be lengthened to allow for this additional content
  • Non-science subjects will place greater emphasis on students’ use of spelling, punctuation and grammar
  • Coursework will, for the most part, no longer be a means of assessment. Students are likely to take more examinations as a result

Students will understandably be nervous about the implications for their grade prospects and for progressing into the sixth form. The good news, however, is that Ofqual has made it clear that grade boundaries will be adjusted to ensure that there are no significant changes to the number of students achieving particular grades under the new system compared with the old. 

6. What will MPW be doing and why?

At MPW Cambridge we have introduced new English and English Literature GCSEs this academic year. The benefit of this is that other schools have taught these courses for one year already and more resources and textbooks are now available. We have also introduced the Edexcel IGCSE in Maths.

Next year we will introduce the new GCSEs in Art & Design, Biology, Chemistry, Combined Science, Computer Science, French, Geography, German, History, Physics, Religious Studies and Spanish.

Finally, in September 2018, we will introduce new GCSE specifications for Business Studies, Economics, Italian and Psychology.

Central to MPW’s ethos is its commitment to designing a bespoke academic programme to cater to an individual student’s best interests. Students may choose to study any number and combination of subjects in an environment where they will receive excellent tuition and support. Students are urged to continue to choose their subjects based on their personal interest, future plans and ability, just as they have in the past, rather than becoming preoccupied with the differences between the reformed GCSE, legacy GCSE and IGCSE and trying to make choices accordingly. Of course, our team of Directors of Studies will always be more than happy to discuss subject choices with students and offer advice.

7. What about retakes?


It is still possible to retake GCSEs under the reforms. Most sittings are in the summer, so students who want to retake all of their subjects are able to join for a one-year intensive course.

The most common GCSE retake subjects are Maths and English Language, which for the academic year 2016/2017 will be available in November and June.  Students retaking Maths or English are usually able to progress into Year 12 studying three A level subjects alongside their GCSE retake course.