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GCSE Grades Explained: Everything You Need To Know

The General Certificate of Secondary Education or GCSE is the high school qualification applied and accepted in England, Wales, and Northern Ireland. For years it has served as a standard of examination across the UK but since 2017, the GCSE grade boundaries began to change from letters to numbers. 

By 2020, all the subjects in the GCSE syllabus had shifted to numerical grading and it has been the same ever since. This article will explore the GCSE grading system and tell you everything you need to know about it including the difference between the old grading method and the reformed grading, what are the new boundaries, and how they are set. 

In this guide, you will find the GCSE grades explained simply and thoroughly.

What is The Difference Between The Old Grading and New Grading System?

The old grading system entailed grades from A* to G with A* being the highest grade and G being the lowest. In contrast, the new grading system runs from 9 to 1, with 9 being the highest grade and 1 being the lowest.

The new grading system allows more differentiation between the higher grades. Numbers 7 to 8 cover the grades A* and A, numbers 4 to 6 cover the grades B to C, and the numbers 1 to 3 cover the grades D to G. The grade U, which means unmarked, remains the same.

In the reformed grading system, the grade 9 is considered higher than the grade A* in the old grading system. 

Explaining The New GCSE Grading System

According to the reformed grading system, the numerical grades would align with the old alphabetic grading in the following way:

  • 9 = Higher limit of A* 
  • 8 = Lower limit of A* or higher limit of A grade
  • 7 = Low A grade
  • 6 = High B grade
  • 5 = Lower limit of B grade or higher limit of C grade
  • 4 = Low C grade
  • 3 = D or high E grade
  • 2 = Lower limit of E grade or higher limit of F grade
  • 1 = Low F or G grade
  • U = U

In order to pass, you need at least a grade of 4 or 5. According to GCSE, grade 4 is considered a standard pass and grade 5 is considered a strong pass. Most of the university courses require you to have a minimum grade of C or 4 in the GCSEs. The alignment of new grades with the old ones maintains continuity and fairness in the marking scheme.

It means that a student who has received a grade of C according to the old marking scheme will now achieve a grade of 4 in the new grading system. This helps education providers, teachers, and employers to compare both of the grading systems.

In terms of GCSE exam papers, the foundation tier exam paper entails a grading scale of 1-5 and the high tier exam paper entails a grading scale of 3-9.

How are GCSE Students Assessed?

Since the reforming of the grading system, all courses in the UK are now linear. Students will be assessed at the end of most courses with a final examination rather than in modules throughout the course.

There is also a difference in the coursework in both of the systems. In the reformed system, there is less coursework than in the old GCSEs. It also includes updated content which is more in touch with the English standards in other high-performing countries.

This change in GCSE courses provides the sixth forms, colleges, universities, and employers with a better understanding of where a student stands. It is an epic opportunity for educational authorities to micro-distinguish between different grades. 

Why Were GCSE Grades Changed in England?

In 2014, the education secretary of the time – Michael Gove – introduced the numerical grading scheme as a part of the curriculum overhaul. The qualifications were designed to make the testing system more challenging for students in order to filter them into fine groups. 

The reformation was intended to put less emphasis on the GCSE coursework and more emphasis on the final examination at the end of the two years. The government argued that with the new grading system, because of this there would be a greater distinction in the academic performance of students and more recognition of the achievements of high-achieving students. 

The new grades keep pace with the demands of universities and employers so that they can distinguish candidates of different capabilities. The new grades also make it clear to institutes that you have studied the new GCSE coursework.

How are GCSEs Graded in Wales?

In September of 2015, the Welsh government introduced a new and reformed grading system for students getting an education in Wales. Although they made some changes in the English language, Mathematics, and Welsh language courses, no other changes were made to the system. 

The Welsh Government chose to retain the old alphabetical grading system (A* to G).

How are GCSEs Graded in Northern Ireland?

In the summer of 2019, the CCEA introduced a reformed grading system, different from the one implemented in England. The new 9 category grade scale included grades from A* to G which also included a C*.

They also added an option of getting grades according to the new English system if the exam is taken by the English board.

Explaining The Ofqual Rules 

In order to ensure that the exam boards are consistent and fair in setting their exam papers, Ofqual set some rules in the design of exam papers. 

According to the Ofqual rules:

  • Foundation tier exam paper: Half of the marks should be targeted at grades 1, 2, and the bottom of grade 3 while the other half of the marks should be targeted at the top of grade 3, grade 2 and grade 1.
  • Higher tier exam paper: Half of the marks should be targeted at grades 4, 5 and 6 while the other half of the marks should be targeted at grades 7, 8 and 9.

Ofqual aimed to ensure that there is an adequate and equal challenge across all abilities and strengths. In the high-tier papers, the questions are more demanding and only 20% of the questions are designed for a passing grade of 4. This helps to explain the low-grade boundaries for a grade 4 on higher papers.

What are The Boundaries of GCSE Grades?

The GCSE grade boundaries set a required amount of marks that a student needs to achieve in order to receive a particular grade. These grade boundaries are different for different subjects and may even vary from year to year in order to make sure that the grading is fair.

Senior examiners carefully set these boundaries each year and students will receive their grades according to the set limits.

What is The Impact of GCSE Grade Boundaries?

While setting the GCSE grade boundaries, the principle of Comparable Outcomes is closely followed to ensure that it is neither easier nor harder to receive a particular grade from year to year. The principle of comparable outcome states that if an exam paper is harder than the previous year, then the threshold for passing the exam is also lowered to ensure students are fairly graded.

Grade boundaries for every subject can vary and are set only after the exams have been taken and the papers have been marked. Only then after comparing and analyzing the results do senior examiners set a minimum requirement for passing a subject.

Some of the factors that senior examiners consider when setting the GCSE grade boundaries include:

  • Analyzing question papers from previous years to assess the difficulty level
  • Feedback from fellow examiners about the particular exam paper
  • Previous statistics
  • Prior data regarding the track record of the cohort of students taking the exam

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  • Will students taking the new GCSE exams face any disadvantages?

No. The exam boards ensure that a student is fairly rewarded by using statistics to help set the grade boundaries. Exam boards understand that the new method means that there will be fewer resources for students and even teachers need time to get used to these qualifications. They will consider all the factors before releasing the results.

  • What new GCSE grade is a pass?

According to the new grading system, grade 4 is considered a standard pass. 

  • When are GCSE grade boundaries released?

Grade boundaries are released on GCSE result day. Earlier, the grade boundaries used to be released prior to the result day but it was later postponed to reduce stress in students who were trying to predict their grades.

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