How do the new GCSE grades work?

In the summer of 2017, students in Year 11 will be the first to receive GCSEs under the new 9-1 grading system. They will be graded in this way for English and Maths. In summer 2018, these grades will be awarded for English, Maths, Sciences, History, Geography, French and Spanish. In summer 2019, all GCSEs will be graded this way.

In this blog I will explain what the new grades mean, and how they are awarded. It is quite complicated, but I have tried to make it as simple as possible! I finish the blog this week with “what it means for students” – and this is the most important bit! – so if you get lost, please skip to the end.

Why are the grades changing?

The Government have introduced new GCSE courses for all schools in England. The content of these courses is more challenging than the old-style GCSEs, including less coursework and focusing much more on assessment in exams at the end of the course. The new number grades will identify whether students have taken the new, more challenging GCSEs, or the old-style ones.

What do the new grades mean?

A grade 9 is the highest grade in the new system; a grade 1 is the lowest pass mark. Below a grade 1 is a fail, and will be awarded “U” for ungraded.

In the first year of each new GCSE, broadly the same proportion of students will get a grade 4 or above as would have got a grade C or above in the old system. This has been called a “standard pass” by the Department for Education. If you get a grade 4 or above in English or Maths, you won’t need to re-sit those subjects post-16. The Department for Education has called a grade 5 a “strong pass” which complicates matters. A grade 5 is equivalent (in the first year of each new GCSE) to a high C or a low B in the old system.

Broadly the same proportion of students who would have got grades A or A* in the old system will be awarded grades 7, 8 or 9 in the new system. This means that fewer grade 9s will be awarded nationally than A*s under the old system.

You can see the equivalence of new grades to old in this illustration from Ofqual, the exams and curriculum regulator:

How will the new grades be awarded?

GCSE grades are awarded after all the exam marking has taken place.

Exams and coursework are marked according to the mark schemes issued by the examination boards. These only have numerical marks on – exams and coursework aren’t graded by markers. When all the marks for everyone who has taken the subject in the country are in, then the grade boundaries are decided so that broadly the same proportion of children nationally get a grade 4 and above as would have got a grade C and above, and the same for grade 7 and above with grade A and above.

Once the candidates at grades 7 and above have been decided, a formula will be used that means that about 20% of all grades at 7 or above will be a grade 9. The grade 8 boundary will be midway between grade 9 and grade 7. The same process applies to the other grades (see Ofqual’s explanation here).

In other words, your grade at GCSE in the new system doesn’t just depend on how well you have done – it depends on how well you have done relative to all the other candidates in the country taking the same GCSE as you. If you are the top 20% of candidates in the grade 7 and above group, you will be awarded a grade 9. If you are outside that, you won’t. This will not be the same each year, and will change with each new group of students taking the exams every year.

This is very significant because it means that if, nationally, lots of children do very well in the exam, the grade boundaries will move up. If it is a hard exam, and students nationally do not do as well, the boundaries will move down. This makes it difficult for teachers to predict grades accurately; we have to make our best professional judgment on the information available to us.

What does it mean for students?


The changes mean that it is impossible for teachers to say “if you do this you will definitely get a grade 5 or above,” because getting a grade 5 depends on how well everyone else in the country does relative to how well you have done. We can’t possibly know how well everyone else in the country has done or is going to do, so all we can do is teach you to get better and better at your own Maths, English, Science, History, Geography and all your other subjects, until you sit the GCSE exam. You have to keep working and pushing yourself to achieve more because what was good enough for a grade 7 last year won’t necessarily be good enough for a grade 7 this year. Don’t settle! You need to keep improving so that you go into the exam at the end of Year 11 fully prepared and confident that you are the best at each subject that you can possibly be – and then you will get the grade that you deserve.

Remember there are posts on this blog to help you to revise effectively, and you can download our guide for families to helping students revise.

Good luck!


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