The new GCSE grading system

Although many were in favour for exams amendment, they now believe there has been too much change, with even teachers unclear about the new grading system.

The recent changes to the GCSE grading system are taking effect as of August 2017in Maths and English, with other subjects following over the next three years. The changes to the GCSE grading system means that grades are now scored between 9-1, as opposed to A* to G, with 9 being the highest grade achievable. However, not all subjects are moving over at once. This August, only Maths and English will be graded by the new system – and exams in both subjects are to be made more rigorous simultaneously. It is predicted that by 2019 all exams will shift from A*-G to the 9-1 grading system. During this transition, students in England will receive a mixture of letter and number grades. These changes are only taking place in England, with Wales and Northern Ireland not implementing the new 9-1 grading scale as part of their changes to GCSEs.

This new measure is intended to better distinguish the achievements of high-attaining pupils and differentiate the new, more challenging GCSEs, clearly from the former qualifications. The GCSE qualification award has also been revised to be made more “rigorous” according to the Department for Education [1] with demanding content to enable young adults to gain the knowledge and skills they need to thrive in a globally competing working environment.

Under the new numerical grading system, see Table One below, a Grade 4 and above is to be equivalent to a C and above and is expected to remain the minimum that students must achieve. Current employers and universities are accepting, on average, grade C from applicants and will be expected to recognise applicants at a grade 4.

However, there are different interpretations from different universities. University College London and Kings College London expect applicants for all subjects to have a minimum of a Grade C at Maths and English GCSE – but under the new system that will be a grade 5 [2]. Conversely, the London School of Economics – which previously required Grade B – now requires a 5, although a Grade B could also be the equivalent of a 6 [3].

It certainly does seem that the first cohort to sit their exams under the new system will be at some disadvantage as employers and universities adjust to the changes and agree on benchmarks. To many it seems as though there is currently no clear way of equating the old and new grades and confusion is dominant amongst many surrounding what each numbered grade means, for example grade four will be seen as a “standard pass” and a grade five as a “strong pass” [4] so, what does this mean exactly for students, where should they aim for a sufficient ‘pass’ ?

Mary Bousted, general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Leaders, said “I am hearing amount (sic) a huge amount of stress. Teachers are feeling very insecure. They are having to say to people: ‘I think this is a pass, but I don’t know’ [5].

This can be a problem for many, including employers, universities and other higher education establishments to understand what they are looking at and how to value it.

Ofqual claims that in 2016, in English and in Maths, about 70% of 16-year-old students achieved a Grade C or above and so it would expect a similar percentage to achieve a four and above in this summer’s exams, insisting that these students will not be disadvantaged compared to those who took their exams in 2016 [6].

All in all, at the core of all changes being implemented, a continued drive for higher standards in schools providing the best possible outcomes for our children is the main aim. While it is all well-meant, the new system has a potential serious downside. Calculating the results seems unreasonably complicated and the figures aren’t easy to translate. At this stage, it appears nobody, from parents to teachers, to the pupils themselves, understands the grade translations. In addition to which, the new “rigorous” exams, and the fluctuating grading system will become incomparable from one year to the next – even for the most data-savvy.

This confusion only adds to the stressed faced by all in the Education system. Students are not being given clear answers to basic enquiries, and this makes it very difficult for them to plan their future educational needs. Certainly, with universities and employers unsure of the way to equate grades, it is unclear how anyone will react once results are published.

Speaking to the Headmaster of a school recently, we discovered that this uncertainty has led them to pulling out of the GCSEs this year and switching to IGCSEs while this “beds in” and “settles down”. Speaking to others in the Education system, we are seeing this replicated through both the state and the private systems, with some Head Teachers and Principals unwilling to risk their students future prospects on a tried and tested solution.

The information available from Ofqual as to the new grading system has not allowed many educators to fully understand the implications. Therefore, they are looking elsewhere.

In Education as a whole, Stability and Change are both important concepts. There needs to be stability and certainty for all students and educators, so that boundaries and comparisons can be made. At the same time, Education must constantly adapt and change to provide the most up to date learning for the students involved. This is always a fine line, and any changes to grading systems and qualifications are always met with some level of angst.

However, on this occasion, it seems that the impact and the changes required have not necessarily been planned well enough. Certainly, the communications strategy has allowed for ambiguity and a lack of full understanding by many stakeholders, and can be seen as a poor outcome. Change needs careful planning and extremely good communications, without either of these elements any change can fail or at least fail to deliver the expected positive outcomes.

At Strategic Discourse we wish all students sitting the GCSEs (and equivalent exams) a most successful summer and hope everyone attains the grades they need.

Bon Chance!