March 2016

The Changing Face of the GCSE

"Don't ask yourself what the world needs - ask yourself what makes you come alive, and then go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive." - Harold Thurman Whitman, philosopher and theologian

The GCSE (General Certificate of Secondary Education) has been around since 1988 (when they were first awarded). Talking about it may not make you “come alive”, but it has been a stalwart of most peoples educational experience (up to those in their mid 40s). It replaced the ‘Ordinary’ O-Level qualification that was first introduced in 1951, which was in-turn a replacement for the existing 16+ School Certificate. So there is a long history of changes to the qualifications awarded at this level of education.

The GCSE has often been accused of being a ‘dumbed-down’ version of the O-Level. That is an argument for another day. But what is certainly true is that even within its own relatively short 28 year lifespan, the GCSE has produced a number of interesting statistics. 

If you compare the pass rates for 1988 with 2015 for example then you can see a chasm of difference: (Source

1988 – 5,230,047 GCSE entrants. Awarded grade A – C (A* begun in 1994) – 41.9% 

2015 – 5,277,604 GCSE entrants. Awarded grade A* - C – 69% 

So there has certainly been a greater trend towards people ‘passing’ the qualification over the years. Statistically, around 65% more people got one of the upper grades in 2015, then those who had taken purportedly the same qualification in 1988. Though explanations of why that might be the case could veer towards either heaping praise on improving standards in education that have produced more able students in the intervening years, or wondering if the qualification has simply become easier to pass? 

Either way, or even if you steer towards the ‘middle ground’ and think that the truth may lie somewhere in the middle. The urge to ‘tinker’ with the qualification remains with those in charge of education in England. 

In 2017 the way that GCSEs will be graded will once more be changing from the A* to G that students are currently familiar with, to a numbers system from 9 – 1 (with 9 as the highest grade and 1 as the lowest). At first this will only affect Maths, English Language and English Literature, but from Summer 2019 all GCSEs will be graded in this way, so now is a good time to become familiar with what it means in practice. 

If you are confused, then you aren’t alone. But hopefully, over time, the kinks will get ironed out and it will become more transparent what this means for students, colleges and employers. 

The consultation document for the new GCSE grading system runs to 63 pages, and tends to just emphasise how few people had actually responded to the consultation process, with a total of just 216 responses. So it remains to be seen if the practical application of the new GCSE grading system will meet the requirements of the over 5 million students who study them, and the over 450,000 full-time teachers who help to teach GCSEs every year.

A Quick Explanation of the New GCSE Grading System

The new grading system is designed to reflect that ‘new’ GCSEs, that commenced teaching in September 2015 (and will first be awarded in Maths and English in 2017), are “intended to be more challenging”, according to independent education charity the AQA.  The new grading system seems like an attempt to provide clearer differentiation between the achievements of students, by once more having a clear top grade (a ‘9’) and removing the muddy waters between students who were awarded GCSEs between 1988 and 1993, where the ‘top grade’, an ‘A’, essentially got downgraded with the advent of the new ‘A*’ grade in 1994. 

The fact that ‘9’ is the top grade (rather than ‘1’) also allows head room in the future for the authorities to continue to ‘tinker’ without having to resort to ‘*’ systems that are at best cumbersome, and at worst downright confusing. 

It is also a reflection of a desire to implement a new ‘top grade’ that is essentially the difference between just getting an A* grade (an ‘8’ on the new system), and getting an A* where you have easily achieved the grade (a ‘9’ on the new system aimed at around the top 20% of those now  getting an ‘A’ grade). At the moment there is no way of telling the difference. (This was also the main motivation for the original A* grade however, so quite how much difference this makes in practice remains to be seen). 

There is also differentiation in the middle ground ‘C’, which most layman would consider to be the ‘passing’ grade for a GCSE. The new system creates a slightly muddier middle ground as to what would be considered a ‘pass’. A ‘4’ can be thought of as ‘just’ achieving a grade C, while a ‘5’ is either a ‘good C pass’ or a ‘low grade B’. A ‘6’ is the equivalent of a solid ‘B grade’, while a ‘7’ is the equivalent of just scraping an ‘A’ grade, and an ‘8’ and a ‘9’ once more are designed to create finer distinctions among higher performing students. Expect to see very popular degree courses such as Medicine and Veterinary Science demanding grade ‘9’ to help them to filter-out students who may previously have made the cut with an A*. 

The AQA has a good video that explains the new changes here. The below graphic from their video illustrates the basic equivalences between the old and the new GCSE grading system:GCSE Grades - Old and New

(Note - The AQA lists ‘5’ as a ‘B’, rather than a ‘B/C’ – However, this stands in contrast to the advice issued by UCAS, which clearly says in their advice to colleges that “Grade 5 will be awarded to around the top third of students gaining the equivalent of a grade C and bottom third of a grade B”. So, in reality you might consider a ‘5’ a ‘good’ pass grade that might have either been a ‘low grade B’ or a ‘high grade C’ under the old system.)

3 – 1 are the equivalent of D to G grades. Though, in practice, “Maths and English GCSEs at grade 3” on your CV is unlikely to do your career or course prospects much good. A ‘4’ is the minimum that any student should be looking to achieve in order for others to consider that they ‘passed’. 

The first year’s results will be awarded ‘statistically’. So the same proportion of students who got a ‘C’ grade in 2016 in Maths and English would have at least received a ‘4’ in 2017. In subsequent years this will then be tweaked with the help of examiners to ensure fairness around the boundaries between the number grades. 

If you would like to learn more about the GCSE changes then you can visit Ofqual or the AQA websites.


Stuart Brown
Media and Content Manager

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