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GCSE syllabuses are set, examinations administered and certificates awarded by five "awarding bodies" or Examination Boards: AQA, CCEA; Edexcel; OCR; WJEC.
The first GCSE courses began in 1986, and the first examinations were taken in 1988.
The inclusion of coursework in GCSE assessments was a novel innovation, which many teachers at the time regarded with scepticism.
There was, however, a decline in the number of pupils taking core subjects such as geography and history and modern languages, and a marked rise in the number of non-academic/vocational qualifications being taken, particularly by pupils from the poorest backgrounds or those attending schools in disadvantaged areas.
Consequently, the new Coalition government introduced the English Baccalaureate as a "performance measure" in the 2010 performance tables published in January 2011.
The mid-1960s saw the introduction of the Certificate of Secondary Education (CSE) as a qualification available to all, with its grade 1 equivalent to grades C and above at O Level, and its grade 4 pitched as the "average" attainment for the age group.
However, throughout its life, the CSE qualification was seen as inferior to O Level.
The measure shows where pupils have attained a C grade or above across a core of academic subjects - English, mathematics, history or geography, the sciences and a language.
The intention is to allow parents and pupils to see how schools are performing in key academic subjects and to encourage schools to give all pupils, including those from the poorest backgrounds, the opportunity to study academic subjects.
Taking GCSEs is not compulsory, and it is up to schools whether to enter pupils for examinations.
There are around 50 different GCSE subjects, alongside 14 Vocational GCSEs which have recently been introduced to replace Part 1 GNVQs (General National Vocational Qualifications).