GCSEand BTEC outdoor activities

GCSE PE and outdoor sports (post 2016)

With all the new changes that have come from both the Department of Education as well as the examination bodies it is tricky to understand what is actually required for assessments in GCSE rock climbing, kayaking and canoeing.

This post is what we believe the new assessments mean and gives some guidance on what a high level performance actually looks like. Believe it or not some elements of the assessment have actually got easier! I hope that by reading this you will gain a better understanding of what the different examination bodies require and whether these can still be done as a part of an intensive course at any outdoor centre.

This post is split up into the 4 awarding bodies that we normally come across

  1. Edexcel
  2. AQA
  3. OCR
  4. WJEC


Edexcel is one of the  awarding bodies that have produced a good syllabus which is easy to understand and gives good guidance about the different levels of performance.

The old syllabus was very much based around a criterion assessment but the post 2016 syllabus has moved away from this. There is now a choice of set skills (skills in isolation), such as knot tying, and the students can be assessed on four of these. This element has actually got easier as we now only need to train and assess in 4 skills. The fact that bouldering skills such as ‘spotting’ and understanding the grading system can also be assessed has made this section very easy indeed.

The other half of the assessment is based on rock climbing performance (application of skills) i.e. how well you move on rock. This element is harder as the ability to move well with flow and precision can only be gained through many hours of practice.

Below is an adjusted table that outlines the assessment guide for application of skills. This table not only includes Edexcels description but also our views how this should be interpreted when assessing climbing.

Rock Climbing 

 Points awarded  Description of skills
 1-5 Ineffective skills and techniques, no precision, eg. missing key holds, kicking and scraping feet.
 6-10 Basic level of accuracy with little precision, eg. using holds incorrectly such as wrong part of foot. Does not maintain balance leading to jerky actions.
 11-15 Competent with some precision and control. Using hold correctly such as side pulls and correct part of feet (using toes on footholds not the whole foot when on large footholds; starting to use the edges of the shoes on smaller holds).
 16-20 Good level of technical accuracy, accurate foot work on holds (edges of shoes used when needed), weight transferred with good body positions to remain in balance (center of gravity is over the stable foot when moving the other foot, evidence of twisting/backstepping/flagging in use).
 21-25 Very good technical accuracy, control and fluency. Prise footwork on small holds (able to place big toe/edge on small foot holds). Movements are fluid (this is best tested on easy routes as hard routes often result in stops and rests as the climber plans to readjust the plan).

As you can see, if a climber scrapes feet or has jerky out of balance actions they will only be able to score at the lower end of the scale. Remaining in balance and not scraping feet normally takes many hours of practice. The top end of the scale requires climbers to move with precise footwork and fluidity. Climbing with a flow means that individual climbing moves link into each other (rock over links to inside flag etc). This really means that climbers need to be able to perform a number a climbing moves such as ‘flagging’, ‘rock overs’ and ‘back stepping’. Not only should they be able to do the moves but they need to be able to choose when to do them and link them into each other. This is very high level climbing. It is why we recommend that people taking part in rock climbing assessment must do some climbing in their own time instead of a intensive training and assessment course.

And now for the good news….. Kayaking and Canoeing

Believe it or not this has actually got easier. Again there are a number of set skills in isolation that can be chosen, but we now only need to choose 4 of these. So just like rock climbing the number of set skills that have to be taught and assessed have have now been reduced. The very strange thing that has happened in Kayaking and Canoeing is that you can use a kayak/canoe journey or a slalom event to assess the application of the skills. Now K1 or C1 slalom requires a very high skill level but a journey not so much. If you look at the British Canoe Union syllabus or touring there is very little on it that is not already covered by the set skills in isolation. This means that the students will have access to gain high scores  as long as the students can perform the skills and know when to use them, are able to avoid risks such as motor boats/fishermen, have a good level of fitness and are able to plan a journey.

The table below shows some guidance on what different levels of forward paddling will look like.

 Points awarded  Description of Forward paddling
 1-5 Makes progress via a number of zigzags and correction strokes, often loses control
 6-10 Make progress with many correction strokes but regains control quickly
 11-15 Few correction strokes, good posture and connectivity, vertical paddle strokes which catch section starting near feet
 16-20 As above with good use of core, triceps and anterior deltoid. Few correction strokes
 21-25  As above but with no correction strokes needed.


This is not such great news, the syllabus for kayaking is now either sprint or slalom. Both these categories of kayaking require specialist equipment and slalom also needs access to a white water course and a coach that teaches in this event. The skills set out for kayaking are often white water skills that will require a lot of experience, practice and knowledge. Many outdoor centers will not even have the level of qualifications to take people in these white water conditions and if they do will be limited to taking 6 people at a time as this is the normal ratio for moving water.

The syllabus for rock climbing is not as bad as kayaking but is now extremely performanced based too. There is a small section of ropework that can be assessed but assessments are now harder due to the performance elements. The list below outlines the different areas of climbing assessments and as you can see ropework only makes up one of the 5 sections.

  • roped climbing, jamming and 2/3 points of contact
  • Rope work
  • Overhangs and mantel shelves
  • Traversing
  • Abseiling

The syllabus is a bit vague in terms of what is required for each of these as rope work could mean anything from basic belaying to multiple point anchor systems. The roped climbing, jamming, overhangs and mantel shelves section is a bit easier to understand though.

Climbing overhangs mantal shelves and traversing requires techniques such as ‘back stepping’, ‘flagging’, ‘inside/outside edging’ and  ‘drop knees/Egyptians’. These are all very advanced skills and can only be learnt through many  hours of practice. The top level (band 5 and 4) requires the learners to know when to use these, make few errors when doing them and be able to link them together. This is actually a very hard thing to do and will not be achievable to a beginner.

I don’t believe high scores are possible in a short period anymore and I would be concerned that any beginner taking part in a one-week climbing course  would not be able to achieve high results or if they did I don’t think these results would hold up in the moderation process.


I need to be careful here so that this section does not turn into a bit of a rant! Unfortunately OCR don’t seem to know the difference between kayaking and canoeing and have got many moving water and flat water skills confused with each other. If you’re planning on assessing these, my advice to anyone working with this syllabus would be to just ignore the bits that don’t make sense and assess the skills that are relevant. The section below outlines the main flaws for your reference.

Within the kayaking section they require the students to be assessed in a J Stroke. This is a canoeing skill and can’t be done in a kayak. They also have High Brace turns within the syllabus, these are highly specific sea kayaking manoeuvers that are rarely used and not even part of the British canoeing star awards. They  ask for a sculling draw  and T draw to be done in a white water environment, these are really flat water skills and not used when running rapids. Ferry gliding is in the flat water section  even though this can only be done on moving water. The Rock climbing section asked us to assess a ‘Palm Plant’, I am a rock climbing instructor and have been actively climbing for over 20 years, neither myself, my friends or any professional colleague I have ever spoken to knows what this is.  

The rock climbing section is better but not by much. We are still asked to assess a Palm Plant (despite many people asking OCR what a palm plant is – no one knows!)

The bigger issues for people being assessed in OCR rock climbing and kayaking/canoeing is that the water sports require a element of moving water (grade 2) and rock climbing needs to have an competitive element such as lead climbing or speed climbing. Both moving water and lead climbing are much more advanced skills than before and will not be suitable to people that have not regularly taken part in the sport.


The WJEC is the least well known of the examination boards. As it is a Welsh awarding body it seems to have escaped some the restrictions placed on the other boards. For example you can still do assessment in orienteering, mountain walking, skiing can be done on dry ski slopes, mountain biking is still possible as is sailing and rock climbing and kayaking.

So kayaking is still OK?

Well yes but is does seem to require a high skill level such as paddling grade three rapids or performing white water slalom turns. These are high level skills and if you have anyone that is able to do these you will not need to book them any assessment with an outdoor centre as they will have their own network of people around them who will qualified enough to give them an assessment.

What about rock climbing?

Again a high level of technique is required to perform in Band 4. If we take a close look at the  Skills sections of the syllabus it states the climber should use static and dynamic climbing, change climbing style depending on the type of climb. To do these at the high level (Band 4) it states that the climber should have consistency, precision and fluency, have excellent implication of tactics and strategies and be able to adapt performance under pressure. These are hard skills that will require a huge amount of time climbing and certainly can’t be taught within a short time period such as week. The same is also true for Band 3. It would be possible to achieve Band 2 within a short time period but this would be the highest possible.

Is there any good news?

Yes – orienteering is easy and so is mountain walking (but you can’t do both together). A short training course and assessment could yield a high score for orienteering. If your school does silver or gold DoE it would be very easy to use this as an assessment for  mountain walking to.

In conclusion

Overall the assessments have got harder but they depend on the examination board. It may still be possible to use these sports as part of your assessments.

Edexcel – climbing is harder but still achievable with access to many of the indoor climbing walls around. Kayaking is easier than before but would still require a good amount of training and practice.

AQA – kayaking is now very elitist and not accessible to most. It is unlikely that many outdoor centres will have the equipment or staff needed to assess this. Learners that are part of kayaking clubs will already be able to find people to run the assessment for them within the club.

Climbing is also hard and requires an extensive background in climbing. This is more accessible than kayaking as learning to climb at indoor walls is a great place to practice your skills.

I would be extremely wary of any outdoor centre that tells you they can train and assess in a short period of time as I don’t believe the results will hold up to the moderation process.

OCR – clueless

People will need to be taking part in these sports on a regular basis in order to perform well. Again, I would be extremely wary of any outdoor centre that tell you they can train and assess in a short period of time as I don’t believe the results will hold up to the moderation process.


You can still do well in orienteering or if your school does DoE you should use that as an assessment.

Kayaking and rock climbing require a high level of skill and like OCR and AQA these can’t be taught over a short period of time.

So what does Bowles offer.

For GCSE’s. What we recommend – in order to achieve in these sports we recommend a training course (either residential or a number of day courses) which should then be followed by the students gaining more experience as part of a school club or local group. Once the learning from the training course has been consolidated, we can then run an assessment day.

Find out more on  GCSE courses page.

Have you thought about BTEC? We can offer training and assessments in;

  • Rock climbing
  • Kayaking
  • Orienteering
  • Archery
Picture of Laurence kayaking
Laurence kayaking in Devon

About the Author – Laurence Reading is a qualified teacher who has now been working in the Outdoor Education sector for 20 years. He holds his Mountain Instructor Award and his White Water Kayaking Moderate Water Endorsement. He is still an active climber and kayaker in his free time despite the recent addition to his family. Laurence has been working on the old GCSE courses for many years and through his work with both students and designing the courses that Bowles uses he has developed a high level of understanding of the requirements. 

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