Making the Grade - GCSE Climbing Article

© Macmillan Academy

Climbing has been offered at GCSE level for a number of years now, yet little has been reported in the wider community about its inclusion in the Physical Education qualification and the benefits it can bring to young people. The landscape of GCSEs will be changing from September 2016, and the climbing component is no exception.

Macmillan Academy enjoying a GCSE Climbing session  © Macmillan Academy
Macmillan Academy enjoying a GCSE Climbing session
© Macmillan Academy

Climbing is currently an option as one of the three sports in which candidates are assessed for the GCSE in Physical Education. David Gwillam has assessed the climbing element of GCSE PE. Regarding the reasons why schools might opt for its inclusion in the PE syllabus, David told UKC:

"Schools seemed to implement Climbing and other "non-standard" sports for one of two reasons. Some schools have a history of outdoor activity and/or qualified or motivated staff; and therefore Climbing is merely one of the sports on offer, alongside Football, Tennis etc. In this setting Climbing holds an equal weighting to other sports, and students make an informed choice.

"In other schools, Climbing and some other sports are offered to allow less motivated students to fulfill the requirements of GCSE. This can lead to students/staff opting for Climbing as an "easy option", or a way to improve the marks of less "traditionally-sporty" students."

Motivation aside, how do students respond to an activity deemed 'non-mainstream'? David commented:

"I have found that students opting for GCSE Climbing without a climbing background have been surprised by the level of challenge involved in all activities. The requirement for kit to be cared for and properly used is often surprising, and the "simple" task of tying knots or fastening a harness is very different to that in other sports. Many students respond well to the simple but critical team required for safe belaying, as the outcomes are very clear and distinct. In settings where climbing is not embedded, the pushing of comfort zones is often commented on, particularly when abseiling!"

He added:

"Overall, students respond well to Climbing, especially those students who are not traditional, team-based sport students. There is an appreciation of the wider, non-common skillset required, including flexibility and focus. Gender is not an issue, although boys will often find that their expectations are challenged, with girls redressing a balance."

Teacher of English and Outdoor Activities, Jemma Powell, has taught candidates in GCSE climbing. She commented:

"Children generally respond enthusiastically when offered the opportunity to participate in climbing as part of their PE GCSE. Usually, they already have some interest in the sport. It provides them with the chance to participate in an activity that differs from the mainstream options that are offered, yet often disliked. Having this more exciting and adventurous option is a vital tool when trying to engage unmotivated teenagers."

"If I wasn't on the GCSE course, I wouldn't get to try a sport like climbing."

But what do the pupils themselves think of the course?

A candidate from Central Foundation Boys School (Islington) who participates in the GCSE at Mile End Climbing Centre told UKC."I am learning about peer trust, communication and working in partnership. It is also developing my strength and awareness, if I wasn't on the GCSE course I wouldn't get to try a sport like climbing."

The landscape of GCSE Climbing is being revamped for 2016
© Macmillan Academy

Competition climber Abbie Rivett from Penistone Grammar School added: "I'm enjoying doing climbing in GCSE PE, as I can then use my knowledge about climbing to analyse my performance and explain my strengths and weaknesses."

We interviewed Iain McKenzie - Technical Officer at National Indoor Climbing and Bouldering Award Schemes (NICAS & NIBAS) who played a key role in the marriage of the NICAS and GCSE qualification - to find out more about the course itself.

When did the possibility of climbing entering the curriculum first arise?

Climbing has been part of the outdoor GCSE for a long time but the indoor element is relatively new, we started working with Edexcel seven years ago and developed an indoor spec which could run alongside NICAS. The new specifications from all 3 boards (AQA, Edexcel, OCR) can include NICAS, with the exception of bouldering.

You have incorporated the NICAS schemes into the lessons - so what does the curriculum include?

The curriculum varies across the 3 exam boards:


Students are initially assessed on key skills, which are consolidated and then assessed in a more challenging environment.

Skills (10 marks)

Students can be assessed indoors or outdoors.

1. Bottom/top rope climbing, hand/finger/foot jams, 2/3 point contact

2. Rope work

3. Overhang/mantle shelf

4. Traversing

5. Abseiling

Students should perform the core skills/techniques in increasingly demanding and progressive drills. Progressive drills may start with the skill in isolation but should aim to increase in difficulty by linking skills together and by increasing the difficulty of the route. This must not be in a full climb.

Full context (15 marks)

Students should perform a climb, either in competition or against a suitably challenging environment, demonstrating the skills appropriate to their chosen route. The difficulty of the climb should be appropriately challenging for the performer.

Full AQA assessment criteria can be found here.


Edexcel Rock Climbing GCSE Criteria  © Pearson Education Ltd
Edexcel Rock Climbing GCSE Criteria
© Pearson Education Ltd

Full Edexcel assessment criteria can be found here.


Currently, there is no scope for NIBAS to be delivered under this framework; we are in ongoing discussions, which have been mostly positive, and are working to amend it to facilitate bouldering and bouldering-only centres.


Edexcel will recognise any competition as long as it is in line with a recognised format (eg BMCYCS, BMC Junior British Bouldering Championships).


OCR are new to allowing Indoor/Sport Climbing and their guidance is very generic.

Schools are free to design the training for their candidates in ways that suit them, there does now have to be a competitive element to all sports and climbing is no exception. However for GCSE this does not have to be a big competition and could be completed from within the year group. Providing that what is taught enables the candidates to get the marks they are deserving of (by ensuring the core and advanced skills are met) then how skills are taught is up to the centre.

OCR Skills for Assessment  © Guide OCR
OCR Skills for Assessment
© Guide OCR


OCR will not recognise bouldering. This means not as part of the practice or the competition or any part of the GCSE or GCE physical education.


For GCSE a competitive environment must be used. This can be a school, local, regional, national or even international level competition. We do not mind which, providing it is climbing and not bouldering.

More information on OCR's rock climbing GCSE can be found here.(Although this criteria is dated 2012, the 2016 version is similar).

Who is providing these GCSE classes?

Usually internal wall instructors.

How popular has the subject been so far?

We estimate the GCSE in climbing could affect up to 7000 pupils.

What's participation like for boys and girls?

Participation has so far been very similar for both sexes. The male:female participation in climbing is 50:50, which is exceptional by any sporting standards and shows the value of a largely individual challenge by choice sport being recognised in this way.

Learning through the GCSE Climbing syllabus
© Macmillan Academy

What benefits can climbing bring to the school curriculum for children?

Social skills, physical advantages and physical literacy, all great benefits!

Have you had much feedback from parents?

Many have commented on how well it ties in with the NICAS and the structure it offers through the Edexcel syllabi.

Do you think these qualifications will encourage schools to introduce climbing in PE at a younger age in the future?

More schools are now including a climbing wall or traversing wall and seeing the benefits that pupils gain from getting involved, they want structure and through NICAS, NIBAS and the GCSEs they are getting that. We have recently undertaken a project to create some teaching cards with the Youth Sports trust to promote the physical literacy attributed involved in climbing where there may be no wall present: including skills such as agility, balance, coordination, route reading etc. This will signpost pupils and teachers to the schemes and options which in turn will open the door to new climbers or certainly younger participants getting involved and having a better understanding of, for example, kinaesthetic awareness.

Youth Sport Trust Cover Card  © Youth Sport Trust
Youth Sport Trust Cover Card
© Youth Sport Trust

Whether or not the young people completing this qualification continue to enjoy climbing recreationally or competitively beyond their school years, it's clear that the technical and mental skills learnt through this course and the physical benefits could prove to be a crucial stepping stone towards leading a healthy, fulfilling lifestyle.

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11 Mar, 2016
Fantastic... A really great, positive change to physical education in schools...!
11 Mar, 2016
I have to mention (because otherwise somebody else will), the syllabus states "Rope management - coiling, uncooling, preparation...." I'm sorry but there is no possible way to uncool your rope. It's cool, end of!
11 Mar, 2016
I'm glad it wasn't on the syllabus when I started. Along with a few mates I was totally alienated by the ball-kicking jock-strap establishment that held sway at school. Climbing was just a wonderful adventure that we could get on with without the "supervision" of these PE tossers. They did mutter about how we should have "proper tuition" when they found out, which made it all the sweeter as they knew sweet FA about it.
11 Mar, 2016
I think it's all a bit trendy, would be better to make sure all kids leaving school could ride a bike, swim properly etc.. I don't think climbing should be added at the expense of simple sports that require almost no equipment, ie football etc.. kids should be encourage in sports that they can then do at the drop of a hat at home, it might help keep them off play stations and sweets. A few days a year to introduce them to other activities is fine, but not week in and week out.
11 Mar, 2016
Love it... just f*cking love it! Mick
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