News & Insights 8 August 2016

How important actually is a C grade?

By Year 11, pupils will be well used to hearing that without a C (or now grade 5) at GCSE maths and English, their future opportunities are severely limited. But, with a surge in advertising for skills based apprenticeships, universities accepting record numbers of new students, and employment figures supposedly on the rise – how important actually is it to get a C in maths and English at GCSE?


Entry-level retail positions often don’t require GCSE results, and many roles offer career progression once in the company. When asked about their hiring policy, a representative from Lidl told us, ‘You’ll need to be comfortable with numbers, but other than that this is about having a friendly personality, a ‘get-on-with-it’ kind of attitude and a passion for the business’. Further development in the role will not be quashed by lack of formal qualifications either, ‘For store managers, English and maths abilities are important, but we’re not looking for a particular set of qualifications as such.’

If you want to leave school at 16 and start working with children and young people, your options are limited. Secondary school assistant roles will almost always require a C at English and maths GCSE . Primaries sometimes ask for the grades as well, but – like nurseries – will always look for a qualification in teaching or childcare, or a willingness to work towards one. This will definitely require the Cs .

To go into journalism, media or TV you will have to be able to prove a good level of written English, therefore a C (or now a grade 5) at GCSE English is often used as a marker of this. An increasingly popular way to start in the industry is to do an internship. However, internships, and especially paid ones, are highly competitive and many can, and do, ask for applicants to be educated to degree level.

Further Education

So what are the chances of getting a university degree without the Cs at English at maths?
A 16 – year old who gets five A*-C GCSEs, including English and maths, has an 83% chance of getting an A level qualification by the age of 19. This drops to a 57% likelihood of getting an A level if the 5 GCSEs did not include English and maths .

Retaking exams is an option. If a pupil didn’t get the grades, but thinks with a little extra work or with a different environment or attitude on the day they might, they can apply, at a cost, to retake any GCSE exam. The disbandment of the modular system means GCSEs will need to be resat in full, rather than just resitting the module that needs improving. The pass rate for retakes isn’t wholly reassuring. In 2013, just 14% of those retaking English, who did not previously have a C grade, then achieved a C grade or above. For maths, only 13%.


Apprenticeships have a new boost of government attention, as well as introducing a generous levy, the government has announced The Apprenticeship Grant for Employers of 16 to 24 year olds, paying £1,500 to small businesses hiring a young apprentice for the first time. Although in theory apprenticeships allow you to develop the necessary skills whilst training on the job, some do ask for a C at GCSE maths and English, which will transform to the grade 5 for this year’s pupils. For example, an apprenticeship with phone company EE in their ‘Contact Centre’ (taking customer service calls) does not stipulate any specific qualifications whereas, to undertake a Food Operations apprenticeship with Nestle (learning about the food production of confectionary) you will need 5 GCSEs at grades A*–C including a C or above in maths and English.

What’s Changing?

Now we are seeing an even bigger focus on a benchmark grade for the maths and English GCSE. Getting a grade 5 will enable pupils to be awarded an additional qualification. The EBacc (The English Baccalaureate) is a performance measure awarded when a pupil has got 5 GCSEs at grades 5 – 9 (formally A* – C) including the following subjects: English, Mathematics, History or Geography, the sciences and a language. It has now become mandatory for all pupils starting year 7 in and after 2015 to take the EBacc subjects.

With an added focus on core subject GCSEs at C grade, and employers, apprenticeship schemes and training courses having their pick of applications, coupled with the disheartening success rate of retakes and lowering of status of Functional Skills qualifications, it makes sense for anyone studying for GCSEs to work as hard as they can. Being without that grade 5 may not debilitate them entirely, but it would certainly increase the struggle.