GCSEs 2020: which are the hardest GCSE subjects?

Will the lack of GCSE exams highlight the usual disparities between the difficulty of subjects? Robbie Hicks thinks so.

Robbie Hicks

What are the most difficult GCSE subjects? One student, who achieved 10 grade 9s, offers his opinion

When it comes to GCSEs, a mixed bag of results is often expected by teachers and students alike. 

It’s generally accepted that students have stronger and weaker areas; some are more Stem-oriented, while others perform better in English and the arts.

But are all GCSE subjects of the same difficulty? 

Quick read: How I got straight 9s at GCSE

Quick listen: Why maths A level is the ticket to a top university

Want to know more? How to get pupils talking and improve outcomes

And should we be concerned about this?

This year, no exams were sat. And I think that makes a big difference. I propose that the difference in performance across subjects is partially down to disparities in the difficulty of the courses and exams.

GCSEs: A level playing field?

I achieved 10 grade 9s last summer, but I did not find it easy. 

These are the subjects that I – and others – found the most difficult.


History is a tricky crossover between long-response creativity and remembering heaps of information.

Analysis and evaluation of historical sources on the spot is difficult for even the most proficient essay-writers, and remembering to include detailed facts about each of the four studied themes is daunting.

The scope of question styles also seems a little ridiculous: why must students learn how to answer 18 different types of question, and does this help us understand history?

This breadth also singles history out as harder than other essay subjects. Students cannot cling on to rigid essay structures in the absence of their own knowledge as the essay structures themselves are just as hard.

Modern foreign languages

Modern foreign languages are not accessible to all students – even with the provision of a tiered paper. The challenge is that dedicated vocabulary and grammar practice is the only way to improve, and this long-haul learning style is hard to keep up. 

It is one of the few subjects where every lesson from Year 7 could be relevant – students cannot afford to forget any prior learning as any topic could be tested.

How did the GCSE and A-Level exams algorithm work?

The content of MFL is also extremely difficult, including abbreviations and idioms that even many native speakers may not know. The new oral assessment puts students on the spot to produce complex ideas about contemporary society, like saving the environment and drug addiction. 

As well as this, MFL papers are harshly scrutinised by markers, with only the best 5 per cent of candidates getting a grade 9 this year – and many of these will be native speakers.

English language and literature

Only 13 per cent of the GCSE students achieved a grade 7-9 in English language last year  – one of the lowest percentages for any GCSE subject. The unpredictability of the English language exam presents the biggest challenge, as all analysis and argument must be synthesised in the exam hall when students are faced with an unseen passage.

The scope of language and literature is also difficult. Students must be ready to analyse any genre and style of text in language, and to carefully select poignant quotes to support obscure essay prompts in literature.

The poetry anthologies also deal with difficult themes for the younger generation like relationships.

Should these disparities exist?

Of course, this list is up for debate and is by no means rigid – a more accessible passage in one series of English language GCSE could result in much stronger responses, and all exam papers will have slight deviations in breadth and difficulty.

Year on year, though, the percentage of students gaining the top marks in maths, English language and the modern foreign languages lags some way behind the sciences.

As teachers are assured that grade boundaries are mobile and accommodate differences in question difficulty, awarding fewer students a 7-9 in certain subjects does not make sense.

What are the long-term implications?

These differences are forcing a change in what pupils like me choose to study, especially since the grading reform. For example, MFL entries are down between 30 and 50 per cent across the UK, and the difficulty must have a part to play. 

It is only sensible that students will migrate to the subjects they’re likely to achieve good grades in. 

So, to ensure that some subjects do not disappear, leaving an entire generation without them, I believe we need to at least attempt more standardisation in difficulty.

Robbie Hicks is a student in England

Register to continue reading for free

It only takes a moment and you'll get access to more news, plus courses, jobs and teaching resources tailored to you

Robbie Hicks

Latest stories