GCSE Reforms: How to Understand the New Grading System

GCSE Reforms: How to Understand the New Grading System

GCSE season is a stressful time for most young people. First, there’s the stress of revision and the pressure of exam week, and then the long wait for results day, which hangs heavy over much of the summer break. Even the thought of opening the brown envelope is enough to worry some youngsters, so as a parent or carer, it’s important to be there to offer help and support no matter what their results.

The thing is, results day 2018 (which falls on August 23 – a date for your diary) could be more stressful than usual, with recent reforms to the GCSE grading system meaning that students will receive different marks to previous years. Since the new system was partially introduced in 2017, there’s been a lot of confusion about what the different grades mean, and this is something that could quite easily add to the pressure of results day.


To help students and carers get to grips with what the different grades mean, we’ve put together a handy guide on the GCSE reforms to help you understand the new grading system. Jump to the information you need using the links below or read on for the full guide.

How to understand the new GCSE grading system

In 2017, the government introduced a new grading system for some GCSE subjects in which students received a grade between 9-1, with 9 being the highest mark and 1 the lowest. This replaced the old A*-G grading, and this year the system is being rolled out across most subjects – so students can expect mostly numbers on their results card.

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Below, we’ve added a table which shows what the new grades mean when compared to the old A*-G system, so you’ll know how well they’ve done right off the bat.

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


As you can see from the table, a 4 is considered the lowest standard pass mark for a GCSE paper and is the equivalent to a C grade under the new system. Confusingly, a 5 grade can also be a C, though it represents a higher pass mark. While it can be handy to compare the old and new grades in this way, Ofqual, the exams watchdog, has warned against relying on the old system to interpret grades, as the old system is much more simplistic.

Last year, just three subjects were graded under the new system, including English literature, English language and maths. This year, however, the majority of subjects will be graded in numbers with the exception of IT, business, media studies and ancient history – which will be graded in line with the new system from 2019.

The fact that some students will have a mixture of numbers and letters on their results card will no doubt add to the confusion, but as long as you remember what the numbers mean and understand why some grades are still displayed as letters, results day should go smoothly.

Why have GCSEs changed?

With a view to improve the UK’s standing in education, the government implemented a series of reforms to make GCSEs tougher and more challenging, giving young people a solid foundation of learning while making sure they’re equipped to deal with the pressures and expectations of life beyond the school gates.


Over the last two decades, the government has been collecting data from universities, colleges and employers about how well they think schoolchildren are prepared for life in work and in higher education. Broadly speaking, many businesses and institutions believe that more has to be done to give young students a real-world experience while still in school so that they can more readily go out and achieve their aspirations.

While the traditional GCSE model was made up of 80% coursework and 20% exams, this ratio has been altered as part of the latest reforms. Why? In recent years, universities have been vocal in their criticism of GCSEs, complaining that controlled assessment options and an over-reliance on coursework have led young people to forget the meaning of failure. Under the new system, it won’t be as easy for students to re-sit exams until they get what they need, and universities see this as a positive step in highlighting the need for hard work in school.

Naturally, not everyone agrees with the changes and some worry that the reforms are a step back to the days of grammar schools rather than a step forwards towards inclusivity for all youngsters. It seems they’re here to stay, though, with every GCSE subject scheduled to face the reforms by 2019.

Could the new system affect my child’s grades?

There’s been a lot of talk about the potential impact of the GCSE reforms, with many parents voicing concerns about how the new grading system, coupled with tougher work, could affect their child’s grades and put them at a disadvantage.

It certainly seems like this year’s GCSE students are the guinea pigs for the new grading system, and some are worried that this could impact on their results and mean they get poorer marks than previous years for what is essentially the same work and assessment process.


But while it’s hard to know how the changes will affect this year’s GCSE grades until the results are published, Ofqual has allayed concerns about the new grading system by assuring people that around the same number of C+ students will achieve 4s and higher as part of the new system.

Things to remember

Anxious student or concerned carer? Here are the need-to-knows and things to remember about the GCSE reforms and the new grading system:

  • Most GCSEs will now be graded out of 9, with 9 being the highest score and 1 the lowest. There’s also U, which remains the same (ungraded).
  • The new grading system is only being introduced in England, with Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland devising their own marking schemes or retaining the traditional A*-G system.
  • IT, media, ancient history and business studies will retain the A*-G system until 2019.
  • The standard pass rate is 4, which is the equivalent to a C grade.
  • 20% of all 7+ grades will be awarded a 9, which represents exceptional work.
  • Don’t forget – GCSE results day falls on the 23 August in England.

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