This article was written before the summer 2017 exam results were published. Reviewing the points made two years later, in June 2019, we can report that the 2017 and 2018 results showed no more 'out of tolerance' results than in previous years. That means that broadly speaking results were the same, but our other concerns about the new exams and grading system remain. 

The report of the 2018 analysis undertaken by the exams regulator OFQUAL into whether GCSE results between 2016 and 2018 were unusually variable concluded that:

  • Some variation in year-on-year results for individual schools and colleges is normal.
  • Overall, the level of variation is generally similar to last year.
  • There is slightly more variation in the reformed GCSE 9 to 1 subjects that were awarded for the first time this summer, compared to the reformed GCSE 9 to 1 subjects first awarded in 2017. This is not unexpected since there have been changes to the structure of these qualifications compared to the legacy qualifications.

Article Summary

The new GCSE exams involve changes to content, exam format and grading. This has proved challenging for exam boards, and particularly for students and their teachers. As the first results are awaited in 2017 this article explores the changes and their impact, both short and long term.


Four years ago Michael Gove, the then-minister of education, unleashed  plans for wide-ranging reform of GCSE exams . Now in 2017, the first cohort of students await the results of the first ever sitting of the new GCSE exams in Maths, English and English Literature. They will get their results on 24th August.

Whenever there's change to an exam, whether it is change in what students need to know or how their knowledge is assessed, there's uncertainty and speculation: will the new exam be harder than the old one, and what impact will results have on individuals, schools and the wider world?

Exam boards go to a lot of trouble to ensure that  students of the same ability should get the same result from one year to the next but will those processes be effective in 2017 with the new GCSE exams? There are good reasons to be cautious: the exams involve new content, new assessment and even a new grading system. And the changes are not minor tweaks either. Taking Maths as an example (similar concerns attach to the new GCSE English exam).

Content change in the new GCSE exams

The  Department for Education has been upfront in saying "The new GCSEs will provide more rigorous content" which is shorthand for saying the new GCSE exams contain more difficult topics, and a close look at the GCSE Maths bears that out, particularly for the Higher Tier papers, though even the easier Foundation Tier papers have new material to be learnt.

Assessment change in the new GCSE exams

The old Maths GCSE involved coursework, the new one does not. Coursework benefitted students who were organised hard workers, even if they were not necessarily strong in the subject. The new exam-only pattern will be tougher for such students.

The old Maths exam was modular whereas the new one is linear. With modular exams student could take papers one at time during the course (and resit individual papers). Linear means all the exams must be taken in one go. Again tougher for many students

The new GCSE exam papers involve tougher questions. Students now face longer questions which involve extracting information to calculate with. Finally, there's more overlap between Foundation and Higher Tier papers, which in practice means that less able students taking the Foundation Tier face some tougher questions. This is true also of students taking Higher Tier papers because they will contain really difficult questions designed to identify the very top, 'grade 9', students (see below).

Because the changes have been substantial and, as with any new exam, only a very limited range of 'specimen' exam papers have been available, it has been less easy for students and their teachers  to anticipate the challenges posed by this summer's Maths and English GCSE papers. In particular teachers have not been able confidently to predict GCSE grades in the new exams.

Teachers have complained that bright students, who would normally have been able to answer the great majority of questions in a Higher Tier paper, have come out of the exam in tears because they could not cope with many questions. And under-confident students may well give up on questions they could actually do.

Grading change in the new GCSE exams

With the new GCSE exams comes a new grading sytem. Results will no longer be given as letter grades (A*, A, B down to G), but as a number (9, 8, 7 down to 1).

The new system (which applies only to results from new GCSEs) has one extra level. This will make it less easy for exam boards to maintain consistency with previous years. Even with major changes in content and assessment, exam boards can normally use statistical methods to make sure that students of the same ability get the same result that they would have got with the previous version.

That involves marking the papers, then putting all candidates in order according to marks achieved, then fixing the boundary mark for each grade so that the same percentage of students each year get awarded each grade.

This means that the number of actual marks required to get a grade is very likely to change every year, but it does ensure that the same percentage of candidates get an A*, a C etc. That's a pretty fair way of awarding grades so long as the nature of the candidates and the nature of the grading system doesn't change. In 2017 the nature of the grading system is changing significantly, and other changes mean that the nature of the candidates is likely to change too.

Apart from the inevitable public confusion with a number scale on whether 9 or 1 is top, there are two more complex questions: how do old and new grades relate, and what will count as a 'pass' grade in the new system.

How do old and new grades relate?

If it were as simple as the top two grades (8 and 9) being the same as an A*, and the other 8 grades running in parallel, comparisons would be easy enough. Alas, it's not that straightforward as the official OFQUAL summary of new grades  shows. The current 'below pass' grades of D,E,F,G will be squeezed into new grades 1,2,3. Grades B and C will be divided amongst 4,5,6, while  7,8,9 will correspond with A and A*.

So how will the exam boards  assign grades if the new numbers do not exactly correspond to a old letters? The answer is 'with difficulty'. The official line is that "In the first year each new GCSE subject is introduced, broadly the same proportion of students will get grades 1, 4 and 7 and above as would have got grades G, C and A and above respectively in the old system." and that other grade boundaries in the new system will be decided according to the same arithmetic formula used in previous years.

Many fear that this process will be less effective than OFQUAL hope. There are technical reasons why the 2017 cohort may not be fully comparable with those of 2015 and 2016 which will provide the yardstick for these comparability calculations. In 2015 less radical changes to GCSE produced the biggest drop in pass rate for 30 years. That does not bode well for the class of 2017.

'Pass grade' confusion

With the old GCSEs it was widely accepted that a C grade or better showed that a student had reached an acceptable level in a subject. A C became known as a 'pass'. OFQUAL say that the dividing line between 4 and a 3 in the new grading will be the same as the current division between a C and a D, so the same percentage of candidates should get a 'pass', but the waters have been muddied by a separate decision by the government to emphasise the importance of  a "strong pass" - a grade 5 (equivalent to a high C grade) or better, to be included in future school performance figures as a way to 'drive up' attainment.  At the same time they emphasise that a grade 4 should still be regarded as a pass. Will a pass remain a 4 or shift to a 5? Plenty of scope for confusion here!

In another parallel initiative, students carrying on in post-GCSE full time education will be expected to retake Maths or/and English GCSE if they have not already got grade 4 or better. Coupled with other factors such as the removal of IGCSE from approved subject lists, the number of exam entries in English and Maths is expected to rise considerably. This will put further pressure on already-stretched teachers and exam boards.

Impact on students, teachers and the wider world

While it is impossible to introduce significant change seamlessly, the introduction has been rushed and confusing. Concern is as much about the total impact of substantial changes introduced all at once as it is about whether the individual changes are a good thing. OFQUAL  has written to schools to tell them to expect variability in their results this summer.

There will certainly be an impact on the students who take the new GCSE exams while they are still bedding in, but are these changes positive in the longer term? The Department for Education certainly expect big benefits: "The new GCSEs will provide more rigorous content and the new grading system provides greater stretch for the highest performers, by showing greater distinction between the top marks.‎ These changes will help young people ‎to compete with the best in the world and deliver the skills that employers tell us they need." Looking at these claims in more detail:

Will the new GCSE exams help improve university readiness?

In this respect the changes are likely to succeed. As the TES' Maths expert Chris Barnes put it “The thing with the 9-1 GCSE is it’s a far better preparation for A level than the legacy GCSE."  However the same article describes an unintended negative consequence of the new approach and its introduction:  the number of 16-year-old students choosing to study maths in the sixth form after taking this year’s tougher GCSE has fallen by at least 10%. So A level Maths students will start with a better foundation, but there will be fewer of them. This is at odds with the concern that Britain trains too few engineers.

Will the new GCSE exams help improve achievement?

The new grading system and tougher content will certainly help the top 5% of the age group shine more brightly, but what about the remaining 95%? There's concern that it will be harder for lower ability students to reach 'pass' level, but it's too early to tell if this will happen. Certainly calling grade 5 a 'strong pass' and introducing school performance indicators using it is designed to put further pressure on schools to raise the attainment of their pupils.

One could argue that these changes will produce a further improvement in the nation's secondary education, but the requirement to focus on GCSE as the vehicle for 16+ resits risks leaving those who could well have benefitted from more vocational training in Maths and English facing yet again an academic qualification which they have 'failed' already.

Will the new GCSE exams help employers?

In the long term, the argument runs, employers will benefit from a larger pool of more highly qualified applicants. However surveys show that most employers don't understand the new grading system (but then employers have also taken time to cope with exam grade changes in the past). To add to the complexity, because the new GCSEs subjects are being introduced over several years, students' exam certificates will show a mixture of number grades for the new exams and letter grades for the GCSEs they sat which were still 'old style'. The ambiguity about 4 = pass and 5 = strong pass won't help either. The jury will be out for some years on whether the 'average student' starts work better equipped in Maths and Enlish as a result of these changes.

In conclusion

One could argue at length about the long-term benefits of the new GCSE exams, but it is certainly true that the breadth of the changes, and the way they have been introduced mean that students (and their teachers) have had a great deal to cope with. There will be losers as well as winners, especially amongst less gifted students and in schools which didn't interpret the often confusing guidance correctly. Let's hope the long term gain is worth their pain.

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Related pages on this site

The new A level and GCSE exams

Article updated: 11th June 2019

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