The Change In GCSE Grades

Rory Bishop interviews Graeme May (Deputy Head Academic of Abingdon school) about the change in GCSE grades and their effect on Abingdon.

Since exam season is beginning to draw to a close, and soon current 3rd years will begin their GCSEs, most of which will be using the new grade schemes, changing the classic marks of A*-G to a newer and ‘more rewarding’ structure with the grades now ranging from 9-1. This new system is leaving many baffled whilst others barely know about the change, leading to my lessons quickly derailing as students continue to ask questions. The Martlet has consulted Abingdon’s Deputy Head, Academic, Mr May, in order to understand these changes and the questions at hand.

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Currently GCSE are marked on a A*-G mark scheme.  However, as you know they will soon be changing to a 9-1 mark scheme. Please could you explain how this new system is being implemented throughout the country?

It has already been implemented! In some subjects, students will be receiving the new grades this summer, just not at Abingdon school. It has been introduced in phases, with of English and Maths first, to be followed by other subjects, similar to the phasing of the A-level changes.


Will the grades be marked on a comparative scale, or will they have previously set grade boundaries?

What they have done is fix certain comparisons so the new grade 4 is the equivalent to an old C grade and the new 7 is the equivalent of an A grade (This is what they say in terms of standard). There is not much more information than that and one of the intriguing things about it is that therefore you have got 4, 5 and 6 covering the old C and B. So what does a 5 represent? Is a 6 a sort of top B and the 4 a bottom C? It is not at all clear. I don’t think they know how they are going to achieve this.


So, Why do you think it is being introduced at this time?

Ha, the cynic in me says that every new government likes to play with the education system, thinking that they have a better way of doing things. However, I think there are two less cynical reasons, if you like, for it.

Number one is grade inflation and the the number of pupils achieving A*. I think it is a bit of an issue, so  distinguishing between people for university or employers, being presented with rafts and rafts of A*s. There is absolutely no doubt that in the majority of subjects( there are certain exceptions) since the A* came in during the early 90s, the proportion of A*s being awarded has risen hugely. Subjects like English and Maths actually have kept their proportion pretty steady. However, lots of other subjects started in the 6 and 7% A* are now up in the 20% A*. You can say that is because everyone is smarter and teaching has improved or you could say, ‘hang on a moment, have they made it a bit easier for these grades?’ The answer is probably as ever, a bit of both.

So there is that argument that you can’t distinguish the really good ones anymore. So with the three grade system for the A and A* now being 7, 8, 9 you can impose the equivalent of the A double star. Furthermore, though nobody has ever said this to me directly, it may be the reason why they made it a 1-9 scheme with 9 being the top rather than 1 being the top is so they can just add one on top so when we get more grade inflation you can just add a 10 on top and so on.


The second reason, I think is because this is all tied in with a substantial change in GCSEs. Part of the thinking behind the change in GCSEs is really to make them a bit tougher, to put more content in them now they have all gone linear. Now there is much less coursework, no modularisation any more – to any Abingdonian this is meaningless because we completely dodged modularisation anyway and did relatively little coursework. But the country as a whole has had more of those things. In a way they are saying these are going to be harder and with more testing, I suppose the fact that they are going to be in numbers is going to simply tell anybody reading a set of grades on an application form, ‘Ah you were on that scheme were you?’ whereas an A in one scheme versus an A in another means you have to look at the dates in which people took them. It is easier on a piece of paper as it can be stated, ‘Ah I get it – you’re under the new regime as you have a different grading system.’


How will Abingdon play a role in this new system and will IGCSEs differ from the regular format?

For anyone in the current third year and below, we are essentially going to be all numbers; the exception to that is likely going to be English language and English literature if they stick with their current syllabus. Otherwise everyone else will be on numbers whilst English may be on numbers or it may not. Anyone in the current Fourth Year is going to be on a mix – this has been explained to parents recently (after the Fourth Year exams).


Will the format of any exams change at all?

The format of the GCSEs are changing substantially along the lines of what I said; there will be more content in some ways as they are testing in a more linear fashion. Again because we have mostly been doing IGCSEs, with 85% of our entries to IGCSEs, Abingdon  will not notice much difference.


Do you think that current students might be negatively affected if they are acting as test subjects in the new scheme?

I think there is absolutely that possibility. The government has been challenged over this and this is one of the interesting paradoxes about it because what they are saying is ‘well roughly the same proportion of people getting As at the moment will be getting 7+ and roughly the same proportion of people getting Cs and above will be getting 4 and above. Yet, they also claim they are making the system more tough and rigorous, so something about that does not quite compute. But they will be under severe obligation to make sure the guinea pig years don’t suffer as a result of it. If anything I think they will probably be a bit more generous and gradually get harsher in future years. But there will always be that pressure to maintain the standard from year to year.


Do you think it might influence future careers?

I think that employers are going to find it confusing as it is so far from the system that they had when they were at school because everyone was on the classic grades, barring a few older people who remember the O level and CSE systems (where CSEs were graded in numbers 1-5), so they will need to be educated and educate themselves on these new grades. But I don’t think it will have any severe impact on careers because you just need to explain what these new grades will mean. Yes, you can have one candidate who has a set of A* whilst another has a set of 8 or 9s. Yes, it is going to be confusing at the beginning, but they will have to find a way through. Besides employers are mad if they are only employing on the basis of academic grades.


There have been no major changes to GCSEs since their introduction back in 1988, do you think that these changes are actually necessary or is it just creating unnecessary confusion?

I think every new administration is inclined to fiddle with education as one of its first priorities and think it can ‘sort education out’. I think we have suffered quite a lot from that syndrome of having a new Minister of Education coming in and claiming they would solve the education issue. In the independent sector, we have been quite well insulated from that, as I believe it is much tougher for my colleagues in the maintained sector. What were the problems of the old system? Well it is almost the same question as to why we do so many IGCSEs. I don’t think modularisation was a great idea, as it was learning something in the short term, taking an exam in it and then mostly forgetting it. At Abingdon, we never thought that approach was educationally sound. Coursework has a great benefit, but it has also been endlessly open to corruption and marks being manipulated by students doing and constantly redoing pieces of work, spending disproportionate amounts of time scraping one or two marks, whilst they should actually be considering the elements of their course where effort will have a bigger impact. I don’t object to the reduction of coursework, the idea of things being linear and with more content is good, as we have been through a ‘skills agenda,’ where you do not need to know anything you just need to know how to do it. There has been a rebalancing of that and the idea that there is a body and core of knowledge one should have has resurfaced. This rebalance was inevitable, but I do wish once we’ve been through this change they would leave it alone for a bit. I do get the grade inflation problem as it can’t be entirely attributed to pupil and teaching improvements. Something had slipped there in the system and I can see the need to distinguish. For a school like Abingdon, introducing a 7-9 scale is quite a challenge as we have currently have loads of boys getting A and A*. The number of boys getting A* last year was well over 60%, A* and A was 87%. I believe it will be a really interesting challenge for Abingdon to ask how many 9s a boy can get. What is your new target? We have hit the target pretty well for getting A*, as 60% is pretty good by most standards. But how many 9s will we get? That is the next challenge and I like challenges to stir potentially complacent schools by giving them a new peak to climb towards.

I think the big opportunity is for Abingdon to up their gain and push themselves a little further to see what we can achieve.

Are you allowed to admit what the new 6th form grade boundaries would be?

‘Admit’ seems a really interesting word as it implies I am under some sort of pressure to confess and reluctant to reveal things!  That’s not the case at all. I can’t tell you anything definitive at the moment as we are finalising our thoughts on that. What we are not seeking to do is ramp it up suddenly. The current mark of three As and four Bs will not suddenly be increased to five As or six A*s. What we are working on will be roughly in equivalent of what we currently have. What we are thinking at at the moment, but may not come to pass, is the idea of an average. One of the problems with our current system is that some boys don’t do the full 10 GCSEs for a variety of reasons and we did not proportionately narrow expectations down – we just said that you should still have three As and four Bs enabling less room for error if you weren’t doing 10 GCSEs. It was only a marginal problem but we are trying to address it nonetheless in this change. Let’s say it might be an average of six by allocating points to each mark (i.e. a 7 gets you 7 points, a 6 gets you 6 points etc). No matter the number of GCSEs you would be at no disadvantage in terms of achieving the average. We would also probably add to the expectation of what you need for a subject in your chosen A levels. This is still being debated. Some subjects may vary from 6-8 as some GCSEs are not like the A levels. Once again this will not be hard and fast. For example, if you really wanted to do a subject and got a six, we would not say you can’t do it, we would offer a conversation with us, the head of department and teachers as well as looking back at 4th and 5th year as well as your mocks. Perhaps the final grade you got isn’t consistent with what we expected and we might then say that the A level in that subject is entirely fine. However, we may also say your mark is deserved and look back upon boys with similar entry levels and their results. Then we might advise an alternative. Again though, that is no different from what it is now where a boy comes in the day before term begins in the 6th form and has that conversation if he hasn’t achieved a GCSE A grade in the subjects he wants to do at A Level.


Any other comments that you would wish to make on this matter and the system?

I think it is going to be just a bit confusing for people. We will wait to see the first sets of results. How they are proportioning 7s,8s and 9s, what the B equivalent really is, lots of other unanswered questions.


The best thing to do with any change (especially one over which you have no choice)is to try and look for the opportunity it might bring you. I think the big opportunity here is for Abingdonians to up their game and push themselves a little further to see what more they can achieve: the introduction of the A** equivalent (the new grade 9) is just that.