GCSE results day 2017: what is the new 9 - 1 grading system and why are so many students confused?

Luke Mintz
GCSE students could face confusion this year, as the new 9 - 1 grading scale arrives for certain subjects - Christopher Pledger

Teenagers across Britain will wait eagerly this month as GCSE results pour in. Schools, teachers and students in England are also braced for confusion, however, as the new 9 - 1 grading scale replaces the old A* - G in certain subjects.

What is the new system and how will it affect me?

As students pick up their GCSE results sheets this year, on 24th August, the new 9 - 1 grading system will show up in three subjects: Maths, English Language, and English Literature.

The new scale will be phased in to all other GCSEs over the next two years.

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The new scale is a dramatic shift away from the A*- G system that students, parents, and teachers have been familiar with for decades, but exam boards say it will be “anchored” in the old A* - G system. The bottom of a grade 7 is equivalent to the bottom of a grade A, for example, and the bottom of grade 4 is equivalent to the bottom of a grade C. The bottom of a 1 is aligned to the bottom of a G.

The government expects, therefore, that a pupil who scored a C or above under last year’s grading scale will receive a 4 or above this year.

The government says it is introducing the new scale to inject more rigour into the exam system, and to allow for more differentiation among the highest-achievers. Far fewer 9s will be awarded this year than A*s were awarded last year, for example, with only some 20% of grades that are given a 7 or above due to be awarded a 9.

Students across the country will receive GCSE and A-Level results this month

As a result, the number of students who achieve perfect grades will be substantially lower this year. Dr Tim Leunig, a chief analyst at the Department of Education (DofE), predicted earlier this year that only two students in the whole country will achieve all 9s when the new grading system kicks in fully, although he cautioned that this figure was not a “formal” DofE prediction.

Is there room for confusion?

The government has already spent £380,000 ‘explaining’ the new system to schools, students and employers in an effort to reduce confusion on results day. But with the new scale applying to only three subjects, you should still expect to see a fair number of confused faces on 24th August.

In fact, research from exams watchdog Ofqual found earlier this year that more than two-thirds of students and parents do not understand the 9 - 1 grading scale.

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Meanwhile, more than three-quarters of small business owners and four-fifths of human resources (HR) professionals remain mystified about what the new grade 1 - the lowest mark - will be worth.

Much of the confusion has centred around which grade is the equivalent of a 'C', which provides the golden ticket into many sixth form colleges and apprenticeship programmes. The DofE initially said that a grade 5 - the equivalent of a high C or low B - will be seen as a “good pass”. At the same time, however, a grade 4 would be sufficient to avoid compulsory English and Maths re-sits. This left schools and sixth form colleges scratching their heads - which is the long-recognised golden ticket into sixth-form college, a 4 or a 5?

Justine Greening, the Education Secretary, was forced to step in to end the confusion by announcing in March that grade 4 will be a “standard pass” and grade 5 a “strong pass”.

But many students, teachers, and employers will undoubtedly remain unconvinced that a “standard” pass and a “strong” pass are really so different.

The new 9 - 1 grading system will be phased in to English GCSEs over the next two years

Is the new system likely to confuse entry into sixth forms?

Quite possibly. A survey of sixth form schools and colleges carried out by UCAS found widespread disagreement on what constitutes a satisfactory pass (the equivalent of a grade C) required by most for entry. Thirty-eight percent of the sixth forms surveyed chose grade 4 as their minimum requirement, whilst 42 percent opted for a grade 5. A huge four out of ten of sixth forms said they did not feel confident assessing a pupil’s ability based on the new 9 - 1 scale.

Indeed, the chief regulator at Ofqual warned recently that deserving children could miss out on courses and apprenticeships if the new numerical grades are not understood by businesses and colleges that set entrance requirements.

Justine Greening was forced to step in to end confusion over what constitutes a "good" and "strong" pass under the new numerical system

What does the confusion mean for students?

Geoff Barton, head of King Edward VI School in Suffolk and incoming leader of the ASCL union, told the Times Educational Supplement that several pupils could be shirking sixth form under the mistaken belief that they won’t get in. The number of students planning to join his sixth form this autumn is lower than anticipated, he said, pointing to confusion over the grade 4 “good pass” and grade 5 “strong pass” as a key cause.

“When we talk to a few [students], they say ‘Well, it might be because I’m going to get a grade 4 instead of a grade 5 and I won’t be able to get in’.”

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Will A-Levels be affected too?

No. A-Levels will continue be marked on an A* - E system.

Does this apply to all of Britain?

No, the 9 - 1 system is only being introduced in England. Wales and Northern Ireland are also making changes to their GCSEs, but will retain the traditional grading scale.

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