What does the new GCSE grading system mean for students in England?

GCSEs are now graded 9-1 following changes to the system Credit: Gareth Fuller/PA

The proportion of GCSEs awarded top grades has risen for the second year in a row after the biggest exam shake-up for a generation.

More than one in five (20.8%) UK GCSE entries scored one of the three top grades this year, up from 20.5% last summer.

The proportion receiving the top grades - at least a 7 or an A grade - is the highest since 2015 and marks the second year-on-year rise in a row.

The proportion of entries getting at least a 4 or a C grade is also the highest since 2015.

A total of 67.3% of UK entries scored a C/4 or above, up from 66.9% last year, according to data published by the Joint Council for Qualifications.

The changes to the exams are now being felt in schools and colleges across the country, with one of the biggest being a new grading system.

As teenagers receive their results, we explain the key changes and what it means for students.

What is the new grading system?

The new GCSE grading structure has caused confusion despite being similar to the old system. Credit: PA Graphics
  • Traditional A* to G grades have been replaced with a 9 to 1 system, with 9 the highest mark.

  • English and maths GCSEs – core subjects taken by all teenagers – were the first to move to the new system, with numerical grades awarded for these courses for the first time in 2017.

  • Last summer, another 20 subjects had new grades awarded for the first time, including core academic courses such as the sciences, history, geography and modern foreign languages.

  • This summer, new grades will be awarded for the first time in a further 25 subjects including business, design and technology, and many languages such as Chinese and Italian.

Why was the grading system changed?

The move is part of a wider reform of exams which has seen a complete overhaul of the content and structure of GCSEs.

Schools and colleges have been teaching these new GCSEs for the last three to four years, and it is only now that grades are starting to be awarded.

Maths was one of the first subjects to move to the new grading system. Credit: PA

The new courses feature much less coursework than the old GCSE qualifications.

Modular courses, which saw pupils sit papers throughout their studies, have been scrapped in favour of “linear” GCSEs in which pupils take all of their exams at the end of the two-year course.

The new grading system is meant to clearly distinguish new courses from the old qualifications.

What does this mean for students?

In general, a grade 7-9 is roughly equivalent to A-A* under the old system, while a grade 4 and above is roughly equivalent to a C and above.

Fewer students will receive a grade 9 than would have received an A* under the old grading system.

This is because part of the reason for introducing a new grading system was to allow more differentiation among the brightest students.

Science students are assessed on their practical ability as well as theory. Credit: PA

Last year, 732 16-year-olds in England taking at least seven new GCSEs scored a clean sweep of grade 9s in all subjects.

This year, most teenagers are likely to get numerical grades for all of their subjects, as almost all subjects have now moved over to the new grading system.

The new system has been devised to give high achievers a chance to get a grade better than A*. Credit: PA

Isn’t this all confusing?

There have been concerns raised in the past that the system may be confusing, for example to parents, or businesses presented with potential job candidates with different types of grades.

Different bodies, including England’s exams regulator Ofqual, have been publishing materials about the change and working to publicise the reforms.

Credit: PA

How have we got to this stage?

Education reforms in England began in 2011, led by then-education secretary Michael Gove.

A review of the national curriculum was announced first, with the overhaul of GCSEs starting in 2013.

In 2014, Mr Gove said the new tougher GCSE courses "set higher expectations", adding "they demand more from all students and specifically provide a further challenge to those aiming to achieve top grades".

What can you do if you don't make the grade?

If you're unhappy about your number, you can appeal to your exam board as part of the 'Reviews of Results' service.

Each exam board has a different price per unit or paper, and it's worth checking with your exam board to find out the deadline for requesting a review.

The mark will be changed if the reviewer thinks it’s wrong - but the new mark may be higher or lower than the original.

And, if you have done less well than you hoped - don't panic. Talk to your teachers, they can advise you on what your options are.

You can consider re-sitting subjects, or review whether you want to take A levels - perhaps a BTEC vocational qualification is for you - or maybe an apprenticeship?