GCSE Reform Explained – How The Numerical Grade System Works

If you’re feeling a bit confused about GCSE reform, don’t despair! We’ve done the hard work for you and condensed all the need-to-knows into a single post.

New Grades
You’ve probably heard about the GCSE new grading system. Instead of the traditional A*-G grading system, GCSEs are going to be graded from 1-9, with 9 being the top grade.

These new grades exist in the space between the current grades – for example, grade 5 sits roughly between grades C and B. This makes direct comparisons a little difficult; many of the new grades don’t have a direct equivalent.

The bottom layer of grades – from D to G – have been compacted. They are now spread over grades 1 to 3, with grade 1 roughly equivalent to a G, and grade 3 worth slightly less than a D.

Conversely, the top layer of grades has been expanded – grade 8 is roughly equivalent to an A*, which makes grade 9 the new gold standard (A**). This makes the top grades more competitive, as roughly 20% of the students that are awarded a grade 7 or above will achieve a grade 9.

We’ve added a table of the new grades to the bottom of this page, which should make it easier to visualise.

The DfE is keen to use the existing grading system as an anchor when establishing the benchmarks for new grades. Roughly the same number of students will achieve a grade 4 as currently achieve a grade C. Interestingly, they’ve also anchored grade 7 to grade A, which means that the top three grades – 7, 8, and 9 – will be reserved for exceptionally high achievers.

Grade 5 is roughly equivalent to a high-level C, and will absorb students who would achieve within the top third of marks for the current C grade, and the bottom third of marks for the current B grade. Grade 5 is the new DfE benchmark for measuring achievement, which means that there’s a higher expectation for student outcomes. Despite this, anything above grade 4 (a C grade) is still considered a level 2 achievement – a pass.

The numerical system isn’t the only change. New GCSEs are being rolled out across the country, starting with three new core subjects – English Language, English Literature, and Mathematics. These involve new, more challenging content, such as learning key formulae by heart, and a greater emphasis has been placed on the accurate use of spelling, punctuation, and grammar. Many other GCSEs are also scheduled to receive new content.

The new GCSEs bring with them other changes, too. There’s less stratification into foundation and higher tier papers. Most students will take the same test, unless an exam doesn’t allow all students to demonstrate their knowledge and abilities.

These new GCSEs also place a higher weighting on exams over coursework. This has the potential to put undue pressure onto nervous students, but quick-thinking students that are better at handling exam pressures stand to benefit. It’s interesting to note that, statistically, this is more likely to benefit male students – as such, this approach has been criticised by those who argue that this is a covert attempt to balance the gender inequality in student outcomes.

GCSE reforms are being systematically rolled out across all subjects, starting with English Language, Literature, and Maths. The first results for these subjects will be given in the summer of 2017, and these will help to establish the benchmarks by which all future papers will be graded. By 2019, all subjects will be graded using the new numerical system.

At first glance, it’s difficult to understand the reasons behind these changes. There’s a number of things to consider when evaluating the need for a wholesale change in the UK’s grading system; after all, it’s been effective up until this point. It’s easy to view these decisions from the perspective of a government that wants to change things for the sake of change, but that would ignore the benefits of the new system.

The main driving force behind the government’s desire for change is made clear by the PISA results of the last few years. The UK’s education has continued to fall behind other western countries, such as Canada, Switzerland, Finland, and the Netherlands. Our standard pass grade just wasn’t as impressive – or demanding – as that of other countries. By boosting the standard from grade C to grade 5, the DfE may be attempting to elevate the UK education system to be in line with global top performing education systems.

A drastic change to how exams are graded also provides an opportunity to review grade boundaries. Grades 7, 8, and 9 offer exceptional students a further chance to shine which was previous relegated to A and A* grades. Baseline assessments will also pivot on the marks needed for grade 8, 5, and 2, with an equidistant amount of marks needed for the grades inbetween. It’s a simplified way to view how your grades fit into a greater picture, and – ultimately – once it becomes properly standardised, it might be easier to interpret than our current system.