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GCSE Maths Exam: Everything You Need to Know

18/09/2023 / Maths Tutoring

Once upon a time, GCSE maths achievement was assessed through coursework that was completed before the exam as well as through the exam itself.

However, that’s not the case anymore! Today, your GCSE maths grade is based completely on performance during exams.

If that sounds stressful, don’t worry. We’re here with a breakdown of everything you’ll need to know about what to expect on your GCSE maths exam.

Tiers and exam specifications

The very first step in preparing for your GCSE maths exam is knowing two pieces of information about the exam you’ll be taking:

  1. What will be your exam board?
  2. What tier papers will you be taking?

You’ll need this information in order to know what to expect on your exam.

What are exam boards?

Exam boards are the organisations that create your GCSE maths exam papers.

England, Wales and Northern Ireland have different rules outlining which topics need to be covered on exam papers.

This means that the WJEC GCSE maths exam (regulated by Wales) and the CCEA exam (regulated by Northern Ireland) are different from one another and from any other GCSE maths exam. They cover topics in a different way, sometimes focusing more on one set of ideas and less on another.

On the other hand, there are four exam specifications under the English rules. These are AQA, Edexcel (Pearson), Eduqas and OCR. These boards’ exam papers will all be different, and there are small differences in how they cover topics. But overall, they still follow the “big picture” set out by the English exam regulator, Ofqual, stating what topics must be covered.

The bottom line – know your exam specification and make sure you’re revising using materials from the right exam board! Take a look at our simple guide to the GCSE maths syllabus to see how different exam specifications focus on different topics. It’s important to know what concepts will be covered in the exam you’ll take!

What are tiers?

For GCSE maths exams covered by the English regulator, Ofqual (i.e., AQA, Edexcel, Eduqas and OCR), there are two tiers[GH1] .

Foundation tier focuses on the basic, core concepts of mathematics. If you are on a maths course preparing you for a foundation tier paper, you won’t be learning the most advanced concepts because they won’t be on the exam.

If you take foundation tier papers, you can earn marks from 1 to 5 on the overall scale of 1 to 9. A 5 is considered to be a “strong pass,” a 4 is a passing mark, and 1-3 are not passing marks.

Obviously, the drawback here is that it’s impossible for you to earn marks from 6-9, which are the top marks. But the benefit is that, if you’re struggling with maths, foundation tier lets you spend time on the concepts that you’re most likely to succeed in. If your main goal is to pass GCSE maths and not to pursue any maths qualifications later on, then foundation tier may be a great fit for you.

In contrast, higher tier covers all concepts in GCSE maths, ranging from basic concepts to the more advanced skills and ideas. You can earn between a 4 and a 9 on a higher tier paper. In other words, it’s possible to achieve the top marks. However, the exam questions are more challenging and are worded in more complex ways.

Note also that the foundation and higher tiers weight topics differently. You can see the differences in the Ofqual topic weightings, which cover the AQA, Edexcel, Eduqas and OCR exams.

For the WJEC exam under the Welsh regulator, there is an additional tier – the intermediate tier, which sits between the foundation and higher tiers in terms of difficulty. WJEC GCSE maths exams don’t use the 1-9 grading system. Their potential grades are distributed among the three tiers as follows:

  • Higher tier papers can earn grades between A* and C
  • Intermediate tier papers can earn grades between B and E
  • Foundation tier papers can earn grades between D and G.

You can also see how WJEC papers cover topics differently in their three tiers.

For Northern Ireland’s CCEA exam, there are two tiers – foundation and higher tier. Possible marks in GCSE maths range from A* to G. However, since you have options for taking different papers on the CCEA exam, it’s not as simple to break down which grades are possible in which tiers. See the CCEA GCSE maths exam specification for more details.

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What will the exams be like?

Now let’s delve into the major facts about the GCSE maths exams.

How many GCSE maths exam papers will I sit?

Just how many papers will you be facing?

The answer depends on your exam specification. However, the information below applies to every tier, except where we note a difference.

In all cases, every paper you take must be from the same tier. In other words, if you take the first paper and feel it’s too challenging or not challenging enough, you cannot take a different tier paper the next time.

AQA, Edexcel (Pearson), Eduqas and OCR papers

For AQA, Edexcel and OCR, you will be taking three exam papers. Each one is worth one third of your overall grade, and all papers can potentially cover any topic within the syllabus.

On the AQA and Edexcel exams, each paper is worth 80 marks. The first exam is a non-calculator exam, and the second and third allow a calculator.

On the OCR exams, each paper is worth 100 marks. The second paper is a non-calculator paper, while the first and third allow a calculator.

On the Eduqas exams, you will be taking two exam papers. Each is two hours and 15 minutes long and worth 120 marks, half of your overall grade. Each paper can cover any topic from within the syllabus. The first paper is a non-calculator paper and the second allows a calculator.

WJEC papers

On the WJEC exam, under the Welsh regulator, you will sit two exam papers. Each is worth half of your grade – the first is a non-calculator paper, and on the second a calculator is allowed.

The papers for higher and intermediate tiers are all one hour and 45 minutes long and worth 80 marks. The foundation tier papers are all one and a half hours long and worth 65 marks. For more information, see the WJEC exam specification.

CCEA papers

On the CCEA GCSE maths exam, regulated by CEA in Northern Ireland, you must take two papers. In general, you will take one paper (called a “unit”) with a calculator, and one completion test that has calculator and non-calculator portions.

However, there is a choice of which papers to take. To guide you in making these choices, CCEA has recommendations for certain “pathways,” or combinations of units. For more information, take a look at the CCEA exam specification.

When will my exams be?

Provisional exam dates for the GCSE maths exam in 2024 can be found as follows, based on exam board:

As you’ll see, many (although not all) of the dates are the same across the exam boards.

What can and can’t I do on exam day?

It’s important to know all the rules and best practices for exam day so that you don’t accidentally run into trouble.


  • Get a good night’s sleep and eat a good breakfast beforehand.
  • Prepare your keys, writing utensils, clothing for the exam and anything else you’ll need the night before.
  • Check that you know the right location for your exam and leave in plenty of time so you’re not rushed.
  • Put your writing utensils in a clear pencil case.
  • Bring plenty of pencils and black ink pens as well as an eraser. Bring extras so that if something breaks, you’re not losing time to deal with it!
  • Bring a calculator and other equipment such as a protractor if your exam specification calls for it – but don’t bring a calculator if it’s not allowed on that paper!
  • Raise your hand to ask questions of the invigilator if you need anything.
  • Write your name and full details on any booklets you use.


  • Speak to anyone during the exam except to an invigilator after you’ve raised your hand to speak to them.
  • Bring any food or drink into the exam room except water in a clear bottle.
  • Bring a phone or a watch into the exam room – this includes non-digital watches too!
  • Bring any papers or notes into the exam room.
  • Finish before your time is up – go back and look over your answers!

Get ready for your GCSE maths exam with Principal Tutors

What about nerves or anxiety on exam day?

Revision techniques like doing past papers can help you to master concepts and get more comfortable with the formats and question types you’ll see on exam day. Doing timed papers under exam conditions can also help you to get accustomed to the feeling of working under time limits, which can reduce stress during the real exam.

Private tutoring could benefit you too. With a private GCSE maths tutor from Principal Tutors, you’ll be able to talk over any sticking points and push your skills higher with a fully qualified teacher who knows the ins and outs of your GCSE maths exam syllabus. That way, you’ll be able to go into the exam confident in the knowledge that you’re as well-prepared as possible.

In fact, according to a recent report surveying parents and teachers of students who receive tutoring, adults felt that their tutored students had better mental health and less anxiety.

What else can private tutoring do to boost your achievement on your GCSE maths exam? Call us on 0800 772 0974 to talk through the possibilities, or use our online form to find just the right tutor for you.


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