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GCSE Reforms: What’s Changing and Tips on Understanding the New Grading System

Thursday 21 June 2018

GCSE Reforms: What’s Changing and Tips on Understanding the New Grading System

If you foster a child who’s recently sat their GCSEs, you’ll know how stressful the process can be. From revision right up to results day, the exams put a lot of pressure on young people, so they’ll no doubt be grateful of your guidance and support – even if their results aren’t what you were expecting.

One thing that’s sure to be on the minds of many Year 11s this year is the new GCSE grading system, which has been much debated since it was partially rolled-out last year. Many people still don’t understand the new grades and what they mean in real terms, so there are a lot of questions about how results day 2018 will pan out for this year’s students.


To ensure that results day isn’t any more stressful than it needs to be, we’ve created a guide which aims to help foster carers and students better understand how the GCSE grading system works, why it’s been changed and what it could mean for their grades. There’s really nothing to worry about when it comes to the new grading system, and we hope this guide can allay your doubts and answer those niggling questions.

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Use the links below to find the information you need, or just read on.

The new GCSE grading system: How it works

Last year, several GCSE subjects were graded differently, with students getting a numbered grade rather than a letter. This was the first stage of the GCSE reform roll-out, and 2018 is set to be the year when the traditional A*-G grades are fully replaced by the new 9-1 system.

Since the new grades came into force, there’s been a lot of confusion about what the numbers mean, with some students and parents thinking that the lower the number the better the grade. This isn’t the case, and we’ve put a table together which shows what the numbers mean when compared to the old A*-G grades.

New grading system Old grading system
9-7 A*-A
6-5 B
4-3 C-D
2-1 E-G

So, under the new grading system, a 4 is considered the lowest possible pass mark and is about in line with a traditional C grade, while a 3 is more akin to a D. A 5 is also considered as just a pass, albeit a slightly higher one.

But while it’s handy to know what the new number grades mean when compared to the old-style letters, the exams watchdog, Ofqual, has said that there’s little point comparing the two, as the new system is more advanced and, once it’s bedded in, should be quickly adopted and understood by students.

When the GCSE reforms were introduced last year, English language, English literature and maths were among the few subjects which used the new grading system. That’s set to change this year with most subjects switching to number grades, so you should expect to see mostly numbers on the results form.

There are some exceptions to this, though. IT, business, media, and ancient history won’t start using the new grading system until 2019, so some students may still see a few letter-style grades when they rip open their brown envelope. Just remember that, with the numbered system, 9 is the highest possible mark and 1 the lowest, while a U is still used where work hasn’t been handed in.

What made the government change the way GCSEs are graded?

The government changed the GCSE grading system, as well as the course content itself, to make the examination process tougher and more of a challenge for today’s students. In doing so, it hopes to boost the UK’s standing in world education and better equip young people with the skills, knowledge and experience to succeed when they leave school.


The move to reform GCSEs came after a 15-year research period, in which the government collected feedback from employers, colleges and universities – asking them to suggest ways that today’s students can be better prepared for life beyond year 11. What the research made clear was that most businesses and institutions don’t think students are tested enough in school, and that a general lack of responsibility isn’t readying them for the real world.

Traditionally, GCSEs have been largely coursework based, as well as featuring a lot of controlled assessments and module exams. Under the new system, there’ll be less of a reliance on these types of assessments, as many believe they’re making things too easy for students and not readily exposing them to the idea of failure – meaning they’re less resilient in how to handle setbacks in later life.

Of course, there are concerns about the new reforms and many people disagree with the government’s hard-line stance. The reforms have faced criticism from many groups, including teachers, who believe that too much pressure is being placed on young people and that the reforms signal a return to the outdated grammar school system. But, despite opposition, it seems the new grades are here to stay.

Could the changes affect a child’s GCSE results?

Although the new grading system was partially rolled-out last year, 2018’s Year 11s are very much the guinea pigs for the GCSE reforms – and some people are concerned about what the impact might be and whether they’ll be at a disadvantage.

Ofqual has been quick to assure students, parents and teachers that the new grading system won’t directly put students at a disadvantage, and that a similar percentage of students who previously received a grade C or higher will achieve a pass mark of 4 or higher – so there won’t be a significant drop in the number of students getting decent GCSE grades.


Key takeaways

If you’re a foster carer whose child has recently sat their GCSEs, here are the things you need to know about the grading system and results day:

  • The majority of GCSE subjects will be graded between 9-1, with 9 being the best score and 1 the worst. For simplicity, the U for ungraded has been retained.
  • England is the only place in the UK where the GCSE grading system has been reformed.
  • Some subjects aren’t switching to the 9-1 system until 2019, including business studies, media, IT and ancient history.
  • A 4 is the lowest possible pass mark.
  • A fifth of all grades over 7 will achieve a 9, which is awarded to students who have performed exceptionally well in both coursework and exams.
  • Thursday 23 August is GCSE results day – don’t forget!

Pathway Care works with hundreds of dedicated foster families across the UK, helping them to care for and support vulnerable young people through the good times and the bad. For help and advice on fostering, visit the homepage or get in touch today on 0800 170 1706.

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