Assessments and tests

The focus of your child’s academic journey at secondary/post-primary school will be GCSEs. We break down the core information on GCSEs and some of the other assessments you should be aware of.


Although your child will study more subjects at a higher level throughout their time at secondary/post-primary school, there are actually fewer mandatory assessments. The focus of their academic journey will be GCSEs, for which they’ll choose their subjects for in Year 9, sometimes in Year 10 in Northern Ireland. They will then sit their exams in Year 11 in England and Wales and in Year 12 in Northern Ireland.

GCSEs are a milestone in your child’s education. The subjects they choose and the results they achieve could have an impact on their future study and career choices so, while schools are extremely mindful of the mental health impacts of exam pressure and stress, your child will be expected to work hard in preparation for their GCSEs.

The extra knowledge and understanding your child will gain from studying at this level can be extremely rewarding, but they’ll find their workload increases, both in amount and complexity, and they’ll feel under more pressure than ever before in their school lives.

It’s understandably daunting, but it can be an enjoyable time too. Here, we’ve answered some of the most common questions that come up about GCSEs, including the recent changes in how they’re graded, so you and your child feel fully informed and ready to tackle this important stage head-on. 

How many GCSEs will my child take? 

Children usually take nine or ten in total, a mix of core, foundation and optional subjects.

Students may take single, double or triple science but this doesn’t mean they take separate GCSEs in biology and/​or chemistry and/​or physics. Each GCSE incorporates all three subjects, so double science counts as two GCSEs, and triple science as three, with the teaching time increasing proportionately. Usually, only the highest-achieving students take triple science.

Schools will also offer at least one subject from each of the following areas:

  • Arts (e.g. art and design, music, drama)
  • Design and technology (e.g. DT, graphics, cooking and nutrition)
  • Humanities (e.g. combined humanities, history, geography, RE)
  • Modern foreign languages (e.g. French, German, Spanish, Mandarin Chinese)

In most schools, pupils will take at least one GCSE from each of these categories, however you may find your child’s choices are restricted for example by their timetable (if lessons clash), or their ability (sometimes only the highest performing students take two languages).

Most of the courses or jobs that your child will eventually apply for will expect them to have a minimum of five GCSEs at grade 4 or above.

How do we decide which optional subjects to choose?

Your child’s school will probably organise a parent’s evening or event where you can find out more about what each subject entails and speak to the relevant teachers.

GCSEs are a big step up, so it’s helpful if your child is already interested in what they’re studying. Choosing subjects they enjoy is a great starting point.

How are GCSEs graded?

The way GCSE exams results are graded has changed in England. The A* to G grades that were in place when you took your exams have been replaced by a new numerical system that grades results on a scale from 9 to 1, with 9 being the highest. 

This new system is meant to better reflect students’ individual achievements because, with more grades on the scale, it’s easier to differentiate between students of different abilities. Whereas previously the top grades were ranked across four letters (A*, A, B and C), now it’s split across six tiers.

If you want to understand more about how the exams are graded and what level of knowledge and critical thinking a student is expected to display to reach higher, middle and lower grades, Ofqual, the Office of Qualifications and Examinations Regulation, provides a useful overview.

The alphabetical system is still in use in Wales, and in Northern Ireland, students can choose which exams they take.

How can I help my child prepare for their GCSEs?

Think about starting revision in the January of Year 11 (or Year 12 in Northern Ireland), but remember you can’t force your child to learn. The best approach is to gently reinforce the importance of getting good GCSE grades and provide plenty of support and motivation.
Some children are so afraid of failing they give up before they’ve even started, so reassure them that exams aren’t the most important things in the world and help them find a way of revising that works for them.

When do GCSE exams take place?

GCSE exams are usually held from mid-May to mid-June. Schools usually allow students to go on study leave a week or two before their exams, so they are not expected to attend normal lessons and revise. Check with your child’s school for the exact dates.

When will we receive the results? 

GCSE results day is usually the third Thursday of August. Your child’s school will let you know how they will receive their results.


CATs stands for Cognitive Abilities Tests. They are not compulsory assessments but are used in about half of secondary/post-primary schools to assess children’s abilities to think in particular ways including understanding, memory, reasoning and decision-making. 

This helps teachers to get a more rounded view of each child’s abilities so they can see what each child’s academic potential might be, as well as to identify areas that may need additional support.

When will my child take CATs?

CATs can be taken at any age up to 17. Schools arrange them independently, so there’s no particular date for the test. Your child’s school might not even use them, although many secondary/post-primary schools find them helpful to stream children into sets for certain subjects.

What does the assessment entail?

Children are asked to think through certain problems and apply logic or connect basic facts to arrive at the correct solution. 

The questions are multiple-choice with five potential answers, and they can be completed on paper or on a computer. Each part of the test is examined for 45 minutes.

Can I see the results?

CATs are marked externally and the results returned to the school. Teachers use the results to identify pupils’ abilities in four areas:

  • Verbal reasoning (thinking with words)
  • Quantitative reasoning (thinking with numbers)
  • Non-verbal reasoning (thinking with shapes and space)
  • Spatial ability (thinking with visual images)

Results aren’t published anywhere, although some schools will buy individual reports for parents that explain each child’s results and suggest ways to support their learning at home.

What if my child’s CATs results aren’t that great?

Don’t worry! Most schools use CATs to identify areas that require further work and arrange for additional support. If you are concerned by your child’s CATs results, talk to their teacher in the first instance.