GCSEs have been graded A to G for almost 30 years. However, this year students will see the majority of their results graded 9 to 1, so what does this new system mean and why has it been put in place?
GCSEs were introduced in 1988 to establish a nationally recognised qualification for UK students who decided to leave school at the age of 16, without wishing to pursue academic study at sixth form or university. For the best part of thirty years, GCSEs have been graded A to G, with the A* grade being introduced in 1994 to further differentiate students who achieve the very best results. Students who sit their GCSEs will often go on to study their A-levels at sixth form and subsequently apply to university. GCSE results influence the choices a student makes when considering higher education options.
The A* to G grading system proved very successful up until 2014 when the former Education Secretary, Michael Gove, decided to phase in a new curriculum that brought with it a new grading scheme. Prior to this, it appeared that too many students were achieving the top A* grade, giving both schools and universities very little to distinguish top students from the rest, based on their academic capabilities. The new GCSE courses introduced by Gove include much less coursework than before and almost all subjects depend on exam results alone. Courses have been designed to be much tougher, with exams taken after two full years of study rather than module exams along the way. Supposedly, this will separate the brightest and best students from those who tend to skate by and learn ‘on the go’.
So, a grade 9 is the highest possible grade, while a grade 1 is the lowest (unless you are awarded a U which is ‘ungradable’). The three top grades (9, 8 and 7) are the equivalent of achieving either an A* or A. Having three possible grades in place of two will allegedly show more differentiation between top students in schools. Ofqual, the exams watchdog, believes that far fewer grade 9s will be awarded than the A*s that have come before them. A student that manages to achieve a grade 9 will be said to have «performed exceptionally». A grade 4 is being loosely compared to an average C grade from the old grading system. Ofqual is warning students, parents and teachers not to make “direct comparisons and overly simplistic descriptions”, the new grading system should be seen as a separate commodity that stands alone. There is also a new way to grade a combined science qualification at GCSE. Under the old system, students would achieve a dual grade such as an A*/A* or B/C. Now, students will see a similar approach but may achieve a grade 9/8 or 5/5. There will be 17 possible grade combinations which should, again, differentiate the top achievers from the rest.
This summer, almost all major GCSE subject results will follow the new grade 9 to 1 system for this year’s cohort. English language, English literature, maths, biology, chemistry, physics, history, geography and modern foreign languages are just some of the subjects that have switched over. Subjects such as business, media studies and engineering are late to the party however, these will switch over in 2019. This means some students may see a mixture of grading systems, the old and new one, on their result card this summer.
Whether the new grading system will confuse universities and future employers, only time will tell. Whilst separating top students from average ones has its uses for higher education selection, the 2018 results will finally tell us if a grade 9 is less achievable than its former counterpart, the A*. The youngest ever student to achieve an A* at GCSE was named Thomas Barnes, he was just 7 years old at the time. If a student this young is able to obtain an A*, it’s probably been a long time coming for a change in grading system…