Do you understand the new GCSE 9-1 grading system? Do you have questions about how it works and what is a grade “A” now? Would you like to know what’s changed? Do you have concerns? If so, this guide helps you better understand the new GCSE 9-1 grading system.


In September 2015 new Year 10 students in English and Maths started work on the new GCSE system. This moved from grading students from A*- G to 9 – 1. The first results were released for English and Maths in August 2017. Teachers and schools were aware of this change in 2013 and moved to the new system with limited impact on the students.

Another 20 subjects moved to the 9 – 1 grading in the academic year beginning September 2016. The first set of results for these subjects will be in August 2018. This will likely cover all subjects that most students will take this year. Some other subjects will change next year – but these are in marginal subjects.

The changes to grades only apply to England. Wales and Northern Ireland are not taking the 9 – 1 grading system, even though they have undertaken extensive reform of the GCSEs in other ways. Students in Scotland do not participate in GCSEs and therefore are not impacted by these changes.

Exam Revision

In the new grading system, 9 is the highest grade, and 1 is the lowest. There will be fewer Grade 9 students than there were A* students to signal the higher standard required to aspire to this higher grade. Some experts have said there will be as few as 2 or 3 students capable of getting all grade 9s in England. Grade 1 is equivalent to Grade G, but G – D grades are covered by the new system's standards set in Grades 1 – 3.

Grade 5 is considered a strong pass, and Grade 4 is a standard pass, equivalent to a C. For the time being, Grade 4 in English and Maths is considered adequate for progression to Level 3 study – or A level equivalent. There is an expectation that this standard will move to Grade 5 sometime in the future, as there is a genuine desire in workplaces for stronger literacy and numeracy skills in particular.

In the first year, the examination boards promised that the same number of students would receive a Grade 4 as a Grade C. It is also guaranteed that the same proportion of pupils achieving a Grade 7 or above will equal those getting a Grade A or above. However, the Department for Education is clear that there is no comparison of standards between the old and new grades and this is only for the first year of the new GCSEs. Still, you might find this a confusing message – even if it is reassuring.

New GCSE Grading Structure

Some theories for change

You may be wondering what the point of all this change is and how it helps anyone. You may also wonder why 9 is the highest, especially if you took O-levels and 1 was the best. All in all, you may think this has been designed for maximum confusion.

Well, the official reason for the change in grading is to signal that there is a new approach to GCSEs, and therefore this is a new and improved system. Every subject has changed in some way – almost all are moving towards 100% examination and including more vigorous subject knowledge. Another thought is that employers and colleges needed help working out students' abilities.

To put this into plain speech: too many students were gaining A* grades, and far too many were achieving a C or higher. No big surprise, as the government has been pressuring schools to increase these markers for many years, and schools have been particularly successful. However, this made it difficult for employers and colleges to work out who were the best students. Therefore, the new grading system is intended to toughen standards and clarify the hierarchy of ability between young people.

There are competing theories on why it has moved to 1 – 9, with 9 being the highest. The most common idea is that it allows the flexibility to add a Grade 10, should schools and colleges become too successful at achieving Grade 9. Another theory is that it differs from the old style of grading O-Level; therefore, no direct comparisons can be made. The government didn’t want grandparents looking at what it takes to get a grade now and saying it was harder or easier in their day.

So, are there any real changes?

There are a lot of changes to the GCSEs, and the grading system is just one of these changes. This new system makes course content, examinations and outcome more difficult. Some topics are assessed in GCSE maths, which was once assessed at A-level. There is more content covered in History and English and many others. Whether it is fair that the GCSEs suddenly become difficult is in some ways a moot point – as it has happened, and it is the same for everyone – but it is likely to be disconcerting to your child – and they will start the courses with a sense of injustice.

Also, in the past, there have been chances for resits repeatedly – which led to constant testing for students. Now, there will only be a single sitting each year for examinations – this is in the May/June examination window. The exception to this is English Language and Maths, where there will still be a November resit, but this is for students who move to FE college with a Grade 3 or below and must continue trying to gain the basic pass until they are 18 years old. Schools have been discouraged from moving examinations to Year 10, the only option they have for early entry. This is discouraged by the rule that students can only sit the examination once in each academic year.

What is real? How do you define real?

Schools are also judged differently now. Before, schools were judged on the number of students who passed at Grade C or above. There was some investigation by Ofsted and schools into progress – but this was secondary to the main statistic of A*-C pass. Now the emphasis is on progress.

Now, your child goes into secondary schools with a baseline set by the primary schools in KS2 SATs. The secondary school must then take this student at least 3 levels higher than this baseline to be successful. The main statistic for a school is now Progress 8. This means that 8 subjects will be taken as an average of the number of levels of progress the student has made. English and Maths are counted as twice as important in this calculation – but you do not need to know the over complex formula that makes this possible – know that this is the case. This means your school will be obsessed with outcomes in core subjects.

This change to a focus on progress is good for all students who struggle at school at any level, as they will get the intervention needed. Under the previous system, there was a lot of emphasis on students sitting on a D grade who needed to be moved to a C grade. Other students were not ignored but maybe did not gain access to the additional support that would accelerate their achievement – this was particularly true for particularly bright students who could easily get a B but could easily aspire to an A* with additional help.

Schools are still judged to some extent on the number of students who achieve a Grade 4 – as this is the boundary to Level 3 study (A Level BTEC and others).

Science is also different.

GCSE Combined Science is the new name for what was known as Core and Additional Science and is worth two GCSEs. It still covers all the sciences, Biology, Chemistry and Physics – but not in as much depth. This is the equivalent of Double Science, which schools used to call it. The student ends up with 2 GCSEs at the same grade in Science when completing Combined Science.

Science is different

The alternative is to take each GCSE science separately, which is considerably harder. This requires students to take 9 science examinations in May/ June, as opposed to the 6 that are taken in Combined Science. This is what used to be called triple science and is usually reserved for a school's top 10% of scientists.

Are these changes fair?

The important point to remember is that the system is the same for all students taking examinations this year, and all schools and centres of education have had the same amount of time to prepare. Therefore, the conditions for assessment are the same for all, and therefore no one is disadvantaged. At least, this is the official line from the government – and in some respects, it is true – as long as all colleges and employers understand the new system equally.

There is some concern that students who took the previous specification had an easier time than those who took the new examinations. The standard has got harder – this has been well-publicised. Also, it is unlikely that any student will achieve all Grade 9s – as they may have got all A* in the past. Some students may see this as unfair and maybe rightly so – although they will arguably get a better education thanks to increased standards.

Life is not fair

Examination boards promise that the number of students achieving a Grade 4, equivalent to a C, will be kept similar. This sets the point of comparison for all future numbers of students to achieve the grade in the future. However, it does not guarantee that the numbers achieving Grade 4 won’t drop.

Another perspective to consider is that workplaces will consider the new GCSE grades more valuable than the previous grades. It is well-published that students have had to work harder, know more, and do better under this new system. Therefore, although there may be some unfairness in the need to do more for an equivalent grade, the reward for this is greater respect for a Grade 4 and 5 than Grade C and B by employers. So, it may be that those who walked away with an “easy” C have suffered more injustice than current students.

Are schools ready for this?

The truthful answer is: mostly.

Teachers have known that this change has been coming for a while and have been sent much material from government and school leaders to research the change. Examination boards offer many free events for teachers and consultants to come into schools to help teams of teachers with the transition. Many hours of training and meeting time have likely been devoted to this major change, which has been discussed in depth.

However, there will remain some uncertainty about what the new grades mean until students have been taken through the new examination system twice or thrice. Teachers will continue to compare to the previous grades because this is what they knew. This means that the first and second years will feel confusing for all – but this should work itself out over time.

What if something happens around the time of the examination?

With all the emphasis on the end of Year 11 examinations, this makes students vulnerable to the normal ups and downs of life that happen to all of us at one point or another. This may end with students being unable to attend examinations or their ability to cope limited.

If this happens, the examination officer at your school or college can apply for “special consideration”. If absent, the marks will be taken from other examinations in the same subject and compared to the national average. Statistics have proved this to be the fairest way to grade students in this situation.

If the student attends the examination, but some circumstances severely impact performance, than there is room for an addition of a small percentage of marks, which should counter some of the impact on results.

How are fair and consistent grades achieved by varying exam boards?

There are five major examination boards in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. AQA, Edexcel, Eduqas (which used to be known as WJEC), CCEA and OCR. In Scotland, there is one examination board, the SQA. There is always a concern that not all exam boards are equal – even though the same national standards board governs all.

If you chat informally with teachers, some believe that some examination boards are more generous than others. However, Ofqual, the organisation that monitors standards, works to monitor the work of examination boards and ensure that grades are fair and consistent for all. So, it should make no difference which examination board is used. The teacher likely has more success with certain content or question approaches – rather than it being easier or harder to get a grade. Some examination boards make the style of questions more predictable, making it easier to prepare students.

The awarding process used by each examination board is the same. This process decides what raw mark (number of questions marked correctly) links to what grade. This can change from one year to the next year to ensure that the content on the paper, which may have proved more challenging than expected, does not disadvantage students. It also ensures that differences in students' ability profiles for a year group do not send the mark required too high or too low.

There is a meeting of the lead examiners for the subject. The examiners view examination papers at different marks close to where statistics and the Principal Examiner suggest the boundaries should be. There is then a discussion of standards and a comparison to the statement for the grade set out by Ofqual.

The new grades and tiered papers

Higher-tier students can gain grades between 4 and 9. Foundation-tier students can gain grades between 1 and 5.

The idea of tiered examinations is to provide students with an opportunity to succeed no matter their ability. It is only available if one exam paper does not allow all students to show their knowledge and abilities. In English, there are no tiers, as it is felt that a single tier is adequate to award all the grades. In Maths and Science, where different topics are addressed at higher grades, two different tiers with different examination papers are appropriate.

The move to further education

The entry requirements for sixth-form colleges vary from centre to centre. The general advice is that six GCSEs at Grade 4 or above is the expected minimum standard. Some colleges will accept 5 GCSEs, especially if the GCSEs are in the subjects that students wish to study and include English and Maths. It is uncertain if English Literature will be taken in the placement of the English Language.

Some top sixth-form colleges are giving offers in terms of average results. They will ask students to calculate the average grade of the top 6 GCSEs they have taken. It is likely that the more prestigious the college and competitive the entry, the higher this average will need to be – possibly somewhere between 6 and 8 – depending on the courses applied for. Wolverhampton Girls’ School, for instance, requires an average grade of 6 for entry to their 6th form. They ask for Grade 6 in English and Maths and the subjects to be studied.

In conclusion

The changes feel comprehensive and daunting, but, in reality, it will not be long before everyone speaks the new language of grades. The main differences are:

  • Grades are called 9 – 1 and not A* – G.
  • Gaining a Grade 9 is the exception, and a Grade 7 is considered an A grade or above.
  • This is fair to students because the changes apply to all students, and in Wales and Northern Ireland, the changes in the standard will be reflected in the number of students gaining traditional lettered grades.
  • Schools have had lots of time to prepare. Therefore, students will not be disadvantaged and may find that employers and colleges respect their achievements more.