The GCSE grading overhaul came into play for English and Mathematics in 2017, with numbers being awarded in place of traditional (A, B etc.) grades. This year, the numerical grading system will be rolled out across 20 more GCSE subjects, meaning that many GCSE pupils collecting their results on Thursday 23rd August will receive all numerical grades; whilst others will collect a mixture of grading systems.

This mixture of number and letter grades has the potential to cause confusion, so I have been working with parents and pupils at our school to try and explain the new grading system their children will receive.

The new grading system runs from a 9 (the highest grade) to 1 (the lowest grade), apart from a grade U (ungraded), which still exists. However, it is important to understand that the new numerical grading system is not directly comparable to the ‘old’ letter grades across the whole scale. That said, there are some key points, where the two can be aligned.

The new grading structure explained

The bottom of a grade 7 is comparable to the bottom of the old grade A, the bottom of a new grade 4 is comparable to the bottom of a grade C, and finally the bottom of the new grade 1 is comparable to the bottom of the old grade G. See the table (left) from Ofqual.

All GCSE subjects will obtain one grade, apart from combined science, where pupils study three separate sciences, but are awarded only two grades. Combined science grading will consist of two equal or adjacent grades from 9 to 1 (e.g. 9-9, 9-8, 8-8 through to 1-1).

One of the confusing things around the new grading system is that there are two pass marks. A grade 4 is considered a ‘standard’ pass, whereas a grade 5 is defined as a ‘strong’ pass. The government however is using the percentage of pupils who achieve a grade 5 or above to calculate their school league tables. The reality therefore is that all schools will be trying to ensure that their pupils achieve as many grades as possible at least a grade 5 in the newly graded GCSEs. If pupils get a level 3 in English and/or Mathematics, then they would typically be expected to re-sit these GCSEs until they pass them to at least a grade 4.

Understandably, with the introduction of a new grading system, teachers, pupils and parents are concerned about whether the standards of the ‘new’ (reformed) GCSEs and ‘old’ GCSE are equivalent. Ofqual, the qualifications regulator in England has stated that broadly the same proportion of pupils will obtain grades 1, 4 and 7 and above in the reformed subjects, as would have achieved grades G, C or A and above in the old system and that the approach to awarding the top grades will be the same for all GCSE subjects. To ensure the standard of the ‘old’ and ‘new’ GCSEs are similar the number of grades 7, 8 and 9 will be a similar to the proportion of pupils who would have been expected to obtain an A or A*, had the qualification not been reformed.

While top pupils will of course be aiming to get grade 9s, it is very important to remember that this is even higher than the old A* grade and is therefore coveted for the very ‘best of the best’. Overall, approximately 51,000 grade 9s were awarded across all three reformed subjects last year, however only about 2,000 pupils scored grade 9s in all three subjects, an incredibly small percentage. The likelihood therefore of pupils achieving grade 9s for a larger number of subjects is realistically very small. This is a message that I have been personally trying to reinforce in my academic presentations to parents. Very bright pupils are therefore more likely to achieve a mixture of grade 7s and 8s, with hopefully a couple of 9s this summer – this would be an excellent result.

We will however not really know how the 9-1 grading will transpire until all GCSE subjects are awarded number grades, and this will not be until at least 2019 or potentially even later.

As we approach GCSE results Day 2018, I would now like to take this opportunity to wish all pupils the very best for Thursday and hope that the awarding of these new grades does not cause additional worry.

by Nicola Griffiths, Deputy Head, Ipswich High School