Understanding the new GCSE grading system

Did you know that the old GCSE grading system of A* to G has now been abolished? From summer 2017, students began to be graded using a completely new system based on numbers instead of letters. And you might be surprised to find out that 1 isn’t the highest grade – 9 is! Confused? Don’t worry, this article explains everything you need to know.

Why have things changed?

You might be aware that there’s been a lot of talk over the last few years that GCSEs were getting progressively easier. According to some, subject matter was being ‘dumbed down’ and an emphasis on coursework instead of exams was giving students the chance to keep redoing assignments until they got the grades they wanted.

Now, we’re not looking to debate this point here. But this is the underlying reason why the new grading system has come into play. Following that, GCSE courses have been redeveloped to become more challenging, with the new system phased in from September 2015. English and Maths were the first subjects to be affected, with students taking the new exams from summer 2017. As of September 2017, all GCSEs have now followed suit. Until the transition period ends in 2019, students will be awarded a mixture of letters and numbers.

How does the new numbering system work? 

Unfortunately for parents, teachers and employers, it’s more complicated than it looks! Pass grades are divided into two groups: a ‘strong pass’ and a ‘standard pass’. A strong pass is defined as grades 9 down to 5, whilst a standard pass is a grade 4. Grades 3 to 1 are essentially ‘fail’ grades although, like D to G on the old system, they’re not officially defined as such. Students who don’t achieve a 1 grade will get an Unclassified (U) grade as previously.

Can you compare the two systems easily?

When it comes to equating numbers with letters, this is also less than straightforward. Grades 9, 8 and 7 all correspond to the old top grades of A and A. But under the new system, fewer students will be awarded 9 than would have received A in the old days. The idea behind this is to give more clarity around the top grades, setting the best-performing students apart from those on the borderline.

Further down the scale, the old B and C grades are covered by the new 6, 5 and 4 marks. Whilst there’s no direct comparison for 6 and 5, the grade 4 standard pass is aligned with a C grade. So at least there’s one point where the old and new systems can be compared! Below this, grades 3 to 1 are equivalent to D to G. Again, there’s no exact point of alignment, although a 1 is roughly the same as the lower end of a grade G.

How will a school’s performance be assessed?

The key measurement will be the proportion of students who achieve a grade 4 (standard pass) or above. However, they’ll also be measured on the number of passes at grades 5 and over, as 5 is considered the minimum for a strong pass. Government ministers are hoping that, as educational standards improve, the number of students achieving a grade 5 and above will increase. (Although if this does happen, it could be predicted that the ‘dumbing down’ scenario will rear its head again…!)

What other changes have been made to GCSEs?

As noted above, the new grading system is just one of the many changes that have been made to GCSEs since 2015. In fact, the entire system has been overhauled, with today’s students following very different courses from just a few years ago. One of the biggest changes is that any student who doesn’t achieve a grade 4 in English or Maths must continue studying the subject(s) until they get a standard pass.

There’s also far less emphasis on coursework and practical assessments these days, with most subjects assessed by exams at the end of the two year study period. Whilst this approach undeniably makes the new GCSEs more challenging, there’s an argument that it piles additional pressure on students – especially those who struggle to cope with an examination environment.

Course options have been curtailed as well, with the old Foundation Level in English – designed for less able students – abolished. Everyone will now take the same exams, regardless of ability. Science options are also more restricted, with just two options: Combined Science (worth two GCSEs as before) or all three separate subjects (Biology, Chemistry and Physics). Single Science courses are no longer available.

What grades do you need to study A levels?

A student will need to do at least moderately well in their GCSEs to progress to an A level course. To study three A levels, most schools will expect students to achieve at least five passes at grades 9 to 4 and/or A* to C. This generally includes at least a grade 4 or C in English language. However, requirements can vary from four to six passes, with some schools and colleges demanding higher grades, so it’s a good idea to check this out.

When it comes to choosing A level courses, students will usually need to have achieved at least a grade 5 or B in each subject they want to study. Some sixth forms will demand at least an A or 6/7 grade. If a student’s GCSEs are mostly 4 / 5 or C grades, they might find it difficult to get on an A level course at all. In these cases, options include retaking some or all of their GCSEs, or considering vocational options such as a BTEC or NVQs via work-based training or an apprenticeship.

What about university?

A levels or other higher level qualifications are obviously required for a student to be accepted onto a university course. However, universities will usually consider GCSE performance as well, demanding at least a grade 4 / 5 or C pass in English, Maths and sometimes Science.

Some institutions go a little further and ask for minimum grades in other specified GCSE subjects. Again, it’s a good idea to check with the university you have in mind to ascertain their exact requirements if you’re in any doubt.

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