The changing nature of school exams

July 31 2018

David Spence, headteacher of Mangotsfield School, explains the new GCSEs

This summer Year 11 students will receive mainly new, numbered grades when they open their envelopes. It is part of a move to make the exams more challenging. The change has merged from the government’s drive to improve schools’, pupils’ and employers’ confidence in the qualifications, ensuring that young people have the knowledge and skills needed to go on to work and further study.

This could be very confusing for parents and employers, so I have had a go at explaining the essential changes below. There’s a lot to think about! 

For my school, it has meant that we have very deliberately focused on giving our students as many opportunities as possible to test themselves under the right conditions. We have had two sets of mock exams, although frequently using part-sections identified as more problematic, and have revisited content in lessons all the time. What this meant for our school was a need to collaborate more closely with colleagues in our Trust to agree an approach together to determining work at different grades to help when assessing work. Essentially, there is more content, there are more papers (three in maths, for example), no coursework to speak of, and they tend to be longer. It is a real step-up in terms of challenge. 

The content of the new exams was taught from September 2015, and then examined in Summer 2017, for maths and English Language and Literature only. 


So, what do the grades mean?

GCSEs are now graded on a new ‘reformed’ scale of 9 to 1, with 9 the highest grade (rather than A* to G for the ‘unreformed’ GCSEs), to distinguish clearly between the reformed (new) and unreformed (old-style)  qualifications. English and maths were graded 9 to 1 in 2017, and this year the following 17 subjects will have numbered grading:  Art, the Sciences, Computer Science, Drama, Food preparation and nutrition, Geography, History, Languages, Music, PE and RS.

Most others follow in 2019, so we’re still not fully there yet!


Will grades be lower?


 Ofqual, who regulate exams,  has made it clear that students sitting these examinations for the first time will not be at a disadvantage.  While students may come out of exams feeling they have done less well, as we saw in 2017 with the new maths and English roughly the same proportion of students who achieved a C and above in each of the old qualifications will achieve a grade 4 and above in the new GCSEs. The exam boards will base standards on results of 16-year-olds who took the older GCSE qualifications, so that it does not disadvantage this year’s Year 11 students. 

Will that really be the case, given everything is so new?


Agreed, it takes a few years for teachers and students to get used to new qualifications and there are fewer past exam papers for students to practise on. However, the exam regulator Ofqual recognises that teachers are not as familiar with the new qualifications as they were with the old ones. In theory then, it would not be fair to penalise students for this, so the exam boards use statistics to help set grade boundaries. For example, a student who would have previously achieved a grade C or above would be expected to get a grade 4 or above in the new GCSEs. While the content and assessment have changed, Ofqual says it will make sure that grades are awarded fairly and your child will not be disadvantaged by the changes. 


Why has this new grading system been introduced?


The introduction of the 9-1 system increases the number of higher grades than the previous A*- G system. It should push the very brightest students at the top end even more. By using 9-1, there are now six different grades from 4 to 9, rather than four in the old system (A*, A, B, C), which means individual students can be more accurately recognised in terms of their results. 


How does the new grading system match the old one? 


The new grade scale will not be directly equivalent to the existing one. 

However, to be fair to the students and to give meaning to the new grades, Ofqual has decided there will be some comparable points between the old grades, and the approach to awarding will ensure that, in the first year of a new qualification, broadly the same proportion of pupils will: 

• achieve a grade 7 and above, as currently achieve a grade A and above 

• will achieve a grade 4 and above, as currently achieve a grade C and above 

• will achieve a grade 1 and above, as currently achieve a grade G and above 

It is important to realise the new GCSEs have more grades. While it is true to say that the same proportion of candidates will achieve a 4 and above as currently get a C and above, it is not true to say a grade 4 is directly equivalent to a grade C. 

Actually, a grade 4 represents the bottom two thirds of a grade C, while a grade 5 is equivalent to the top third of grade C and the bottom third of grade B. 

As the top grade is grade 9, will there be similar numbers of 9s awarded to A*s currently?

 There is more differentiation in the reformed/new qualifications, as there are three top grades (7, 8 and 9), compared to two in the legacy/old system. 

I want my child to aim for the equivalent of a grade C across all subjects but I am confused as to whether they should be aiming for a 4 or a 5?

Because the same proportion of candidates will get a 4 and above as currently get a C and above, aiming for 4 and above is equivalent to aiming for C and above. This is, and will remain, the level that pupils must achieve so they are not required to continue studying English and maths after secondary school. The government has defined a grade 4 as a ‘standard’ pass. Where employers, FE providers and universities currently accept a grade C, the government expects them to continue recognising a grade 4. 


But I  have heard there will be a ‘standard’ pass and a ‘strong pass’; what does this mean? 


The government will publish schools’ results, not just at the ‘standard pass’ (grade 4 and above), but also at the ‘strong pass’ (at grade 5 and above) in school performance tables only. The number of pupils achieving a ‘strong pass’ will be one of the measures by which schools are judged. 

It is a bit of a minefield and there will be a few butterflies on the evening before Results Day on August 23, but fingers-crossed to students and parents alike for the big day!