All change for GCSE - exams and grades

Written by Michael Cope on .


Students in Year 11 have just taken the first of the new style GCSEs in English, English literature and mathematics and they will get their results on August 24.

This year these three subjects will be graded 9 (highest) to 1, while all other subjects will be on the old A to G scale.  Most other subjects will have the new grading from 2018.

The changes are part of a new curriculum introduced by Michael Gove in 2014 as a commitment to ‘driving the highest standards in schools’.  In order to make the tests more challenging, coursework and modules are out, replaced by rigorous exams at the end of a two year course.

In the new system, grades nine, eight and seven are broadly equivalent to an A* and A.  Grades six, five and four are in line with B and C grades.  A three would be broadly similar to a D grade, with two and one taking in grades E, F and G.

However, Education Secretary, Justine Greening, says a grade four will be seen as a "standard pass" and a grade five as a "strong pass”.

This has already led to some confusion amongst universities who demand a pass in English and maths as part of their entry requirement, with some accepting a 4 while others specify a 5.

Grade 9 is above the current A* and the new exams are designed to ‘stretch’ the most able and to differentiate abilities at the higher levels.  Nothing wrong with that.

However, it is very difficult to devise an exam paper that is both demanding for those of high ability whilst at the same time being accessible to all students.  Maths recognises this by offering two tiers of entry - foundation and higher exams. English and English literature do not.

The official reason for this is that, under the old regime, many schools played safe and entered too many candidates for Foundation Tier, where C was the highest grade possible.

They argue that this had the effect of putting an artificial ceiling on large numbers of middle ability students. The new English and English Literature exams throw up different problems.

Firstly, the unseen extracts and 19th century literature texts on which candidates are questioned have to be challenging for the more able candidates, which means that those operating at level 5 and below find them very hard to access.

Secondly, the questions themselves almost all demand higher order skills of analysis of style - the skills associated with A Level. Fine for the higher levels, but inappropriate for the whole range of ability.

Thirdly, some students at all levels do not perform well under exam pressure. In part, coursework was designed to make the assessment process fair for all. Now that’s gone, some candidates who suffer from exam stress may not do as well as their ability suggests they should.

Ofqual claims that no candidates will be disadvantaged under the new system. It says that in 2016, in English and in maths, about 70% of 16-year-old students achieved a grade C or above.

Therefore, it would expect a similar percentage to achieve a four and above in this summer's exams. This seems at odds with making the exam more difficult.

It is easy to adjust grade boundaries to achieve that outcome. It is not so easy to justify designing an exam that is unsuitable for a large number of candidates.