What’s in the GCSE Maths Exam?

You’re probably reading this because you’ve got a child at secondary school who is studying Maths as part of the curriculum. When they get to Year 11, before they leave school that final summer, most of them will have to take exams – and these are known as GCSE’s (General Certificate of Secondary Education).

GCSEs are a standardised exam which provide a certificate showing a certain level of knowledge. The exam is regulated, meaning the same exam is taken by pupils up and down the country, in both private and state schools, resulting in grades that should be fair and representative to all.

We’ll go into more detail later on about what, why and when but we want to start with the really important part – how! We’ll talk about what’s involved with the Maths exams – because after all, if you know, you can prepare!


So the Maths GCSEs – what are the five main points you need to know?

1. You take 3 different exams

The Maths GCSE comprises of three different papers, which will be on different days and cover different topics. Rather than sitting an all day Maths exam where they test you on everything (even we think that would be horrible), it’s broken up into three smaller chunks.

2. Each exam is an hour and a half and there is 80 marks.  

So you walk into the first exam and you have an hour and a half to do the paper. You come out of the exam, have a few days off, and then sit another GCSE Maths paper. This one is also an hour and a half long. Finally, the following week you sit the third and final paper. This is (surprise, surprise!) an hour and a half long as well.

In each of these papers, there are 80 marks available for the taking, which means at the end of the three papers you could have scored a maximum of 240 marks, if you’d got every question right!

3. You can only use your calculator in Papers 2 & 3

Those examiners like to test us! Call them old fashioned, but they like to see if we can do Maths with a pen and paper and no calculator present. Therefore, during one exam only (usually the first paper – paper 1), you aren’t allowed to take a calculator into the exam and sums will have to be done in your head (or using a pen and paper)!

4. The 3 papers have a mixture of different style questions

This part is normally taken for granted, although there’s any harm in re-capping the basics! All three Maths papers will have different styles of questions in it – some will be short, perhaps one mark answers, others will be much longer and might be worth four or five marks. Some might require you to circle the correct answer, or read off a graph, whilst others might ask you to complete multiple steps. The questions come in all shapes and sizes, but the one thing they have in common – they all require you to DO something!

5. The paper is supposed to get harder towards the end

This isn’t a really important bit of knowledge, but it’s good to know! If you start at the beginning of the paper and can’t do a question, don’t panic! Just move onto the next one. Although they are supposed to be progressively harder as the paper goes on, you might find a question at the end you can totally do!


And now you know what the GCSE exam involves, do you know what’s actually in the exam?!

(If you’re not too interested in the curriculum, or what the topics are, you can skip this bit! The rest of this blog talks about the topics in the paper, but if you aren’t too fussed about knowing what’s involved, as long as you’ve read the points above, we won’t tell you off for not reading the below!)

We said earlier that GCSEs are a standard exam which provide a certificate showing a certain level of knowledge. Now, to ensure the GCSE exam is doing what it should, that the questions are appropriate and that no-one sees the papers in advance, there is a department called Ofqual which oversees and regulates the GCSEs (and all other exams). Although this is a government department, it is run independently of the government (meaning its supposed to be protected from political interference). You don’t need to know the in’s and out’s of this department, but we think it’s reassuring to know that someone, somewhere is overseeing the exam(s)!

They published a very long document a while ago, in which they state that in any Maths GCSE, it should cover certain topics and the weighting of these is pre-set. So when you learn a topic here at Tutor In A Box, it’s not just because we made it up! It’s in there because the exam regulator has stated it needs to be assessed in your exams.

Now they use 5 main phrases when they’re talking about maths. We’re sure you’ll agree that there are lots of different topics in Maths (and we can count more than 5 rather easily), but since they couldn’t write a list that lasted pages and pages, they had to summarise it. And this is where we get the topics from! Each of these ‘topics’ has lots of different maths it involves, with some of the topics smaller (or easier) than others. To make sure it was fair, they weighted each topic differently (the technical term weighting just means the topics are worth different amounts). So, for example, they say the topic ‘Probability and Statistics’ must be included in every GCSE maths exam, and should be worth 15% of the total marks in the whole paper.

There are five topics that are included in the exams which students needs to know about.

These are:

  1. Number
  2. Algebra
  3. Ratio, Proportion and rates of change
  4. Geometry
  5. Probability and Statistics


As mentioned earlier, each topic has different weightings. The weightings for these (i.e. how important they are / how much they appear in the exam) depends on whether you are taking the foundation or higher paper. For the foundation paper, the topic number is worth 25%; whereas in the higher tier, it’s only worth 15%.

However, to some people (us included when we first started tutoring!) these key words are a bit unclear. They don’t necessarily tell you what it includes.  We could understand that numbers means numbers (so think ordering numbers from big to small, fractions and decimals etc), but someone else might not be clear what geometry included (or didn’t include).

That’s where we can help though – we’re going to tell you all about the different topics in another blog!