The New GCSE Exams And Grading System Explained

18th May 2017


Download Poster

There have been some massive changes in the UK curriculum in the last couple of years and we are now seeing the first exams to demonstrate these changes.

GCSE maths has seen significant changes and these can be confusing even for those working in the education sector! But the new 1 – 9 grading system must be even more bamboozling for parents, after years of being used to the U – A* grading system. How are parents supposed to know how well their children have done? How are changes in the curriculum going to affect the new grades?

We thought we’d do our best to give you a straightforward guide to help you. We will briefly cover a broad description of the changes to the curriculum, then explain the new 1 – 9 grading system that students will be marked on for the first time.

Changes To The Curriculum

Basically, the government pledged that the new maths GCSE would be more challenging across the board, with a much greater emphasis on problem-solving and mathematical reasoning and with more exam marks being awarded for demonstrating these higher order skills.

Students now need the ability to communicate mathematically by ‘drawing communications, making chains of mathematical reasoning and presenting mathematical arguments and proofs’.

This is in theory, a positive move, because it means pupils have to think proactively and apply the skills they have learned in a more creative and intelligent way, rather than just applying formulae they have learnt to use.

However, it will be a challenge and they are now expected to memorise formulae for the exam as well, many of which used to be provided in the exam. Formulae to be memorised include the quadratic formula, Pythagoras’ theorem and trigonometry ratios.

Students are now expected to have better comprehension skills to understand complex problems. They also need extended problem solving skills as fewer helpful steps will provided in the exam in the form of prompts. There will be some tricky non-routine problems too.

Maths is generally divided into two sets - Foundation and Higher, but now the Higher tier has become more challenging, as has the Foundation tier.

Quite a few topics have been moved down – as in some more accessible topics from A-level have been moved down into the GCSE higher curriculum, some topics have been moved from Higher down into Foundation and so forth down to KS2. So the topics this year’s exam takers have been studying will be more advanced at every level.

Exams And Grading System

The exams themselves will be longer and all at the end of the course. Previously candidates spent between 3 and 4 hours in the exam hall, split across more than 1 exam. Now the total will be 4 ½ hours.

The new grading system seems a little bewildering but it’s not quite as complicated as it seems. As a very rough guide, think of 1 as a G Grade, 4 as a Grade C and anything over seven will be an A – A*.

The grades awarded are in many ways more flexible.

The Foundation tier will now go up to Grade 5 which is roughly equivalent to a high Grade C/low Grade B so the highest grade you can get at the Foundation level will be a 5 or a low grade B.

The Higher tier will now cover from Grade 4 and above (Grade C and above), whereas in the past it included grades from Grade D and above so the easiest questions on the higher paper will be a harder than the easiest questions on previous higher papers. A Grade 4 will be seen as a "standard pass" and a Grade 5 as a "strong pass".

Grade 9 has been introduced instead of A* to give more definition at the top end of the grading scale, to accurately identify the highest performers. The top 20% of all GCSE grades achieved at 7 or above will be awarded a Grade 9, so fewer students will get a grade 9 than previously would have got an A*. In short, a Grade 9 will be harder to achieve. 

Still confused? Have another look at this diagram, it should make things a little clearer…

Ultimately, the higher the number in maths, the better the student has done. Only 3 subjects will be subject to this new grading system this year, so students will receive a mixture of traditional A – D grades on most subjects, and the new grading number system for English language, English literature and maths. If they have older siblings who were ahead of them in school it will be best not to try and compare the new grades as it may be unfair and confusing.

In the end, whether the exams are graded with letters or numbers, each student will be apprehensive and doing their best, so no matter what letter they come home with, show them all your support you can.