What Will The Changes To The GCSE Grading System Mean For Our Kids?

Last Updated on : 23rd January 2017


Here’s a question for you.

On a scale of 1 – 9 how would you rate the new GCSE grading system? Wait, what? New grading system? Actually, before you get rating, we’re going to be perverse and throw a small spanner in the works. Make that a scale of 9 – 1, where 9 is the best and 1 is the worst. Has it got any easier yet? Well, as of this summer’s exam results, GCSEs in English, English Literature and Maths will be graded not according to the traditional A* – G lettering system but instead they’ll be graded according to a new numerical system, from 9 – 1, with other GCSEs set to follow suit over the next few years.

So, why make such a change? Why mess with a system that seems to be working perfectly well, and one that is easily understood by students, their parents, colleges, universities and employers? Well, maybe someone should ask Michael Gove, the one-time Education Secretary whose planned changes to GCSEs are behind what will surely prove to be a confusing time for all when the first results are announced this summer. Yes, like the proverbial bad penny and despite not being Education Secretary since 2014, Michael Gove is back…well as least his policies are.

So, what difference does it make if GCSEs are graded according to numbers instead of  letters? We had a possible 8 lettered grades that students could achieve ranging from A* – G, and so the new numbered grades will just correspond with these, won’t they? Well, you might think that, except that now there are 9 possible grades for students to achieve, with 9 being the highest and roughly equating to an A** (a grade that does not currently exist) and 1 being the lowest.

However, research by Ofqual, the examinations watchdog, revealed that two-thirds of students do not understand the new numerical grading system, and neither do their parents. Similarly, 84% of Human Resources professionals and 76% of small business owners are unaware of what a grade 1 indicates. You can only imagine the blank faces perusing the CVs of our future job hunters unless the Education Secretary ups her communications game.

And their confusion is entirely understandable. For years, a grade C has been almost universally understood as an indicator of a certain level of achievement. From this year onwards, a ‘legacy’ grade C could equate to either a grade 4 or 5, indicating either a ‘low’ C or a ‘high’ C, and it’s the level of uncertainty that needs clearing up. Given the fact that A Levels will still be graded according to a lettering system will surely only add to the confusion when our kids present a combination of numbers and letters as evidence of educational attainment.

So, where do we go from here? How will a magical grade 9 be awarded? Will there be the potential some day for certain students to achieve Spinal Tap in their GCSEs and hit the dizzy heights of….10 (let’s not even mention 11)? This is what the Department for Education has to say:

The approach to awarding the top grades will be the same for all GCSE subjects. A formula will be used that means that about 20% of all grades at 7 or above will be a grade 9. This is a slight change on the position previously announced which was that the top 20% of grades at 7 or above in each subject would be a grade 9. The new 9 to 1 grading will more accurately reflect the differentiation of students’ abilities and achievements in each subject compared to the previous A* to G scale.

Well, that’s cleared that up then.

All in all, GCSEs are in for a rocky ride. The ex-Shadow Education Minister, Tristram Hunt,  last week used his resignation speech as a Labour MP to urge Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn to support the abolition of GCSEs in favour of academic and technical

baccalaureates. Describing the exam as increasingly irrelevant, he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, “In a decade’s time, if we have still got GCSEs in England…we will be completely out of kilter with other European countries and not giving young people what they need.”

Whatever happens to GCSEs and the grading system, we must ensure we never lose sight of that.




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