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).
The acceptable level of coursework in courses was capped by the School Examinations and Assessment Council (a predecessor of the QCA) in 1991.
Growing concern about the relevance of academic studies and a lack of technical skills in young people led in 2002 to the introduction of Vocational GCSEs.
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.
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However, throughout its life, the CSE qualification was seen as inferior to O Level.
The awarding bodies decide on a "Common Timetable" each year, so as to co-ordinate the scheduling of examinations.
The Common Timetable usually runs from late May to late June each year.
Although the English Baccalaureate is not a qualification, the Government has said it is currently looking into the possibility of issuing certificates and will confirm its decision "in due course".
Controversies Although the government remains committed to the GCSE examination system, recent years have seen growing numbers questioning its continued relevance.