Skip to main content

Navigating through the confusion

27 July 2016

Year 11 students who have been doing their GCSE exams, my own daughter included, are now enjoying a long summer holiday before embarking upon the next stage in their education and training. What they might not realise is they are a historic group. They are the last group to take GCSEs which will all be awarded a letter grade A*-G. In May and June next year, year 11 students will take new GCSEs in English language, English literature and maths, with a tougher syllabus and graded from 9 to 1. In the subsequent two years, all GCSEs will move over to the new grading system. There are nine grades in the new system whereas currently there are eight, A* to G. In the new system, 9 is the highest grade that a student can achieve, 1 the lowest. The highest grades of A* and A (achieved by approximately 20% of students in any given subject) will be replaced by 7, 8 and 9, meaning that it will be easier to differentiate between the highest achievers. Grades B and C will also be replaced by three numbers, 4, 5 and 6. The gold standard grade C pass, recognised for many employment and higher education opportunities, will be a 5. However, a 5 is not exactly the same as a C; it is equivalent to a high C or lower grade B. Confused? It’s hardly surprising. But it’s a fundamental change and understanding the changes is important. The move to numbers rather than letters is accompanied by changes to the content and exams. The Government highlights that the content of the 9-1 GCSES will be more demanding. Modular assessment will not be available and there will be greater emphasis on end-of-course exams in the summer of year 11. Other types of assessment will only be used to test essential skills. For example, in the 9-1 GCSE English course there are no longer controlled assessments taken in class at intervals throughout the course and marked by the teacher. Instead there will be two final exams in place of the current one. GCSE English will include a wider range of texts and maths will have more difficult content. ‎ The Government believes that these more stretching GCSES will improve standards and boost achievement. For students in years 10 and 11 it could mean a more limited number of options as schools devote more hours to English and maths for example. In the other home nations Wales and Northern Ireland are keeping the A*-G system and, of course, Scotland has nationals and highers. So what does all this mean for progression to college, university and ‎work? First of all it must be remembered that in England from September 2017 students will receive results that include a mixed bag of numbers and letters for at least the following three years, so checking the entry requirements for a particular career, college or university is important, especially in English and maths. For the first two years of the 9-1 GCSE results, 2017/18 and 2018/19, students who have not achieved a grade 4 in maths and English will need to retake these exams as part of their post-16 study programme at college or school. In 2019 it is likely that this bar will be raised to include those who have not achieved a grade 5 in these subjects. It remains to be seen whether standards will be raised as the Government hopes. It is clear that, while it is important that young people are tested, it isn’t fair to make it so complicated that they, their parents and employers cannot understand what the changes are and why. We shouldn’t be left in a situation where a student sitting an exam one year might achieve a good pass, but in another year would have failed to make this grade. This only creates confusion for students about the value of the exams. Most importantly, with the new numbering system in England adding another layer of complexity, we all have a duty to make sure that young people are not demotivated when they should be inspired and encouraged to achieve to the best of their individual ability. Catherine Sezen is the Policy Manager for 14-19 and Curriculum at the Association of Colleges.