GCSE Reforms: What’s Changing and How to Understand the New Grading System

iStock 887313625

20/06/2018 10:32am

As GCSE exam season draws to a close and thoughts turn to results day on Thursday 23 August, there’ll no doubt be some very anxious year 11s and some equally fretful parents and carers. Getting any exam results is always a stressful time, with a lot riding on the grades within the ominous brown envelope. But with the introduction of a new GCSE grading system, results day 2018 could be more anxious than ever, as youngsters struggle to interpret a mix of both old and new pass marks.

If you foster a child who’s recently sat their GCSEs, we understand how stressful the waiting around for results can be. You’ve supported them through the thick and thin of revision, seen them anxiously preparing for exams, and have probably had conversations about their next steps and aspirations for the future. That’s what makes results day such a challenging time, so it’s vital that you’re clued up on what their grades mean and are there to offer support and encouragement – no matter the results.

In this guide, we look at the recent GCSE reforms and explain what’s changing and what you need to be aware of. Use the links below to navigate or read on for the complete guide.

How Does the New GCSE Grading System Work?

The new GCSE grading system was introduced across a small number of subjects in 2017 but is being rolled out across the board for this year’s students. This means that, instead of getting an A*-G, students are being graded from 9-1, with 9 being the best possible mark and 1 the lowest.

Here’s a quick table which illustrates this for reference:

New grading system

Old grading system











Under the new marking criteria, a 4 is considered a C grade and therefore a standard pass mark. However, the exams watchdog, Ofqual, has warned against comparing the new grades to the old, saying they’re overly simplistic.

In 2017, this new style of grading was used to mark three subjects, including English language, English literature and maths. From 2018 onwards, the new system will apply to the majority of GCSE subjects, meaning that students can expect mostly numbers on their results paper.

There are exceptions, however, which is why there’s been a lot of confusion about how the new grading system works. In some subjects including IT, business, ancient history and media studies, the new number system won’t apply until 2019, so students will still receive an A*-G mark for these.

Until the new system is properly bedded in, which will take a couple of years, there’s bound to be a lot of confusion about what the grades mean. Just remember that 9 is the highest score a student can achieve, 4 is the lowest standard pass rate and 1 is the equivalent to a G.

iStock 887313538


Why Has the Government Changed GCSE Exams?

The government has reformed GCSEs to try and boost the UK’s standing on the global stage and ensure students are equipped with a solid foundation of learning to help them with further study, and the rigours and realities of working life.

Feedback from universities and employers over the last 15 years suggests that they believe that the system has not done enough to prepare young people with a broad enough view or experience of the world, and that, often, their GCSE subject choices did not support their future aspirations, especially if they were applying for university courses.

Universities have long complained about the decline of resiliency in students when studying for degrees. The previous GCSE system had lots of coursework or controlled assessment options, module exams and early entry options, which often meant that students never fully understood what failure meant – with the option to re-take and re-sit elements until they got the results they needed.

In the new system, the subject content is described as ‘more rigorous and challenging’, plus there is a much smaller range of non-exam elements and a heavier focus on academic subjects. Early entry options have gone, with all subjects being examined at the end of a two-year course of study, typically at the end of Year 11. Plus, foundation and higher tiered papers are now only permitted in maths, science and modern foreign languages.

The latest reforms are all part of the current government’s plan to make GCSEs more challenging, therefore helping young people bolster their learning before taking on the demands of higher education. Clearly, there isn’t a single system which will suit every young person, and many people have criticised the government’s changes as too traditional, and an attempt to recreate the old grammar school system.

gcse exam

Will the New GCSE Grading System Affect My Child’s Results?

Since the GCSE reforms were announced ahead of 2017’s intake of Year 11 students, there has been a lot of debate on how the tougher exams and new grading system could have an impact on today’s students and potentially leave them at a disadvantage.

Some groups have criticised the changes amid concerns that current and future students are essentially guinea pigs for the new reforms and are being placed at a disadvantage compared to those who’ve previously sat exams, or those set to take them further down the line.

However, watchdog Ofqual has responded by stressing that no student will be at a disadvantage and that a similar percentage of students who achieved a grade C or above historically will achieve a grade 4 or higher under the new system.

Key Takeaways to Remember

Whether you’re a concerned foster parent looking to support your child through the pressure of exam season or a young student who needs help understanding the new grading system, here are some of the key takeaways to remember on the new GCSE reforms:

  • GCSEs in England are being graded from 9-1 rather than A*-G, with 9 being the highest possible mark and 1 the lowest. The U grade remains the same.
  • The new GCSE reforms will not affect Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, where the old A*-G system is largely being retained.
  • The 9-1 grades will apply to most subjects this August, except for IT, business, ancient history and media studies.
  • 4 is the standard pass mark and is the equivalent to a low C grade under the current system.
  • Students who achieve a 9 will have performed exceptionally, and it’s expected that 20% of all grades 7 or higher will be awarded a grade 9.
  • GCSE results day 2018 is on Thursday 23 August – so add it to your calendar.

At the NFA, we help young people realise their potential by placing them with supportive foster carers who can provide an environment in which they can thrive. For more information on how to get into fostering, visit the homepage or call us now on 0800 044 3030.