GCSE grading – 10 useful facts

Written by: Suzanne O'Farrell | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

This summer’s exam results will see the first appearance of the new GCSE grades 1 to 9 as they begin to be phased in. Curriculum and assessment specialist Suzanne O’Farrell gives us 10 useful facts about the new numerical system

We are now only a few months away from pupils sitting exams under the new GCSE grading system in English language, English literature and maths. So let’s remind ourselves why the government believes that 9 to 1 is an improvement on A* to G.

Under the old system, there are four grades between a grade C and a grade A*, whereas under the new system there are six grades (4 to 9) covering the same range. The rationale is that this allows for greater differentiation between candidates and better recognises exceptional performance, with a grade 9 equivalent to the top end and above of an A*.

The government believes that the revised grading scale will also make it easier for employers and others to distinguish between the new, more demanding GCSEs and their predecessors.

As the reformed GCSEs are being introduced in phases – with 20 more in 2018 and most others following in 2019 – pupils in this transitional period will, in fact, receive a mixture of numbers and letters.

Won’t this be confusing for parents, employers and colleges, I hear you ask? Well, yes, it will. However, the Department for Education and Ofqual are attempting to address this issue through various communications to inform people of these significant changes.

Their key messages will be that the new GCSEs are more demanding, the grading system will more accurately reflect individual outcomes, and that a grade 4 represents a similar level of achievement to a current (low/medium) grade C – the threshold for a Level 2 qualification.

So, with all that in mind, here is a list of 10 facts about the new system which should be useful for school leaders and teachers.

A disadvantage?

Although exams in the reformed GCSEs will have to cover a wider, more challenging range of content, Ofqual has made it clear that candidates will not be disadvantaged in comparison to those who sat the old exams in previous years. Ofqual has said that broadly the same proportion will achieve a grade 4 and above as achieved a C and above in the old exams, and broadly the same proportion will achieve a grade 7 and above as previously achieved an A and above.


A grade 4 is not directly equivalent to a C. It represents the bottom two-thirds of a C, while a grade 5 is the equivalent of the top third of a C and the bottom third of a B.


In the new qualifications there are three grades – 7, 8 and 9 – at the top of the scale, compared to two in the old system – A and A*. We can therefore expect that fewer students will achieve a 9 than previously achieved an A*. In fact, about five per cent of all grades will be a 9.

Grade boundaries

Even in well-established qualifications, grade boundaries are never set in advance. It is almost impossible to predict precisely how much easier, or harder, pupils will find a paper compared to previous years. Setting the grade boundaries is known as awarding and this will only be done once all the papers have been marked in the summer.


Under the new GCSE system, only maths, science and modern foreign languages will be split into higher and foundation tiers. The grades available to pupils sitting the foundation tier are 5 to 1, and for those sitting the higher tier 9 to 4. It is worth noting that the grade range covered by each tier has changed significantly. The new foundation tier is equivalent to B to G under the old system, whereas it previously covered C to G. This means the borderline between the two tiers is higher than in the past. As a result, it is likely that more pupils will be entered for the foundation exams in these subjects than in previous years, particularly considering the more demanding content in the higher tier.

Grade 4

Achieving a grade 4 means students have achieved a standard equivalent to a Level 2 qualification, which should allow them to progress to Level 3 courses. Students will not need to resit English and maths if they achieve a grade 4 or above. It is worth noting that in order to train to teach at secondary level, students will need to demonstrate a standard equivalent to a GCSE grade 4 or above in maths and English.

Grade 4 vs grade 5

The government has now decided to describe a grade 4 as a “standard pass” and a grade 5 as a “strong pass” and report on both in the school performance tables. Previously, it had referred to grade 5 as a “good pass”. ASCL felt that this devalued the achievement of a grade 4. We feel that the new terminology is a sensible measure and we are pleased that the secretary of state has listened to our representations.

Re-sitting English/maths

The education secretary has also now indicated that in the future grade 4 will remain the level that pupils must achieve in order not to be required to continue studying English and maths post-16. Previous guidance had indicated that it would move to grade 5 after 2019. ASCL did not think this was fair or consistent. This change is therefore a positive step forward.

Realistic expectations

Employers, colleges and universities will continue to decide the GCSE grades needed to meet their requirements. The Department for Education is encouraging them to have realistic expectations of pupils in the first cohorts who are sitting the new, more demanding GCSEs, when setting their entry requirements for work or further study. Employers and colleges will also need to recruit the same number of students as previously, so are likely to set their criteria at grade 4 and above.

Standards required?

We know what A to G grade exam papers look like, but no-one yet knows exactly what 9 to 1 grade papers look like. What standard of work will produce a grade 4, for instance, or a grade 9? In future years we will have the benefit of past papers as a guide but there is inevitably some uncertainty in the transition.

We will have to trust that statistical mechanisms will ensure this year’s pupils are not disadvantaged and, of course, continue to provide our pupils with the best possible preparation.

  • Suzanne O’Farrell is curriculum and assessment specialist with the Association of School and College Leaders.

Further information

  • ASCL has produced four information papers containing likely FAQs for school leaders, teachers, students and parents. These can be found at www.ascl.org.uk/information
  • ASCL is running a series of seminars – Shining a light on exam results. The seminars are being held on: Wednesday, May 17 (London), Thursday, May 18 (Exeter), Friday, May 19 (Bristol), Friday, May 26 (Birmingham), Tuesday, June 13 (Manchester). For details, email pd@ascl.org.uk


Please view our Terms and Conditions before leaving a comment.

Change the CAPTCHA codeSpeak the CAPTCHA code
Sign up SecEd Bulletin