For the past three decades, employers have advertised roles requiring candidates to have a certain number of GCSEs at “grade C or above”. But is all that about to change to “grade 4 or above”? Rob Moss provides a crash course on GCSE reform from an employer’s perspective.
The General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE) was introduced to replace O levels in 1988. Other than the addition of the grade A* in 1994, and the frequent claims of “dumbing-down”, little has changed.
GCSEs are to be revised this summer with the first cohort of students to have been examined according to a new 9-to-1 grading structure. Three subjects will be graded 9 to 1 when students receive their GCSE results, while the others keep grades A* to G.
So how are GCSEs changing and how will it affect employers? We look at nine key aspects of the GCSE reforms:
9. GCSEs in England are being reformed and will be graded with a new scale from 9 to 1, with 9 being the highest grade and 1 being the lowest. Where currently there are four grades (A* to C) above the threshold for having to retake a GCSE, there will be six grades (9 to 4). And where there are currently four grades below the threshold (D to G), there will now be only three (3 to 1). Ungraded GCSEs will continue to be denoted with a U.
What about the EBacc?
The English Baccalaureate or EBacc is part of a drive for students to take more “rigorous” academic subjects. It comprises grades A* to C (or grades 9 to 4) in the following GCSEs: English, maths, the sciences, history or geography, and a language. Students do not receive an EBacc certificate, but the number who take and achieve the EBacc is monitored in school league tables. The Government aims for 90% of students to take the EBacc subjects by 2020. In 2016, the proportion stood at 40%.
8. Ofqual, the Government regulator for qualifications and exams in England, says the new GCSE content will be more challenging. Assessment will be mainly by exam, with other types of assessment only used to test “essential skills”.
7. Fewer grade 9s will be awarded than A*s, rewarding only exceptional performance. Around 20% of grades 7 and above will be awarded a grade 9.
6. English language, English literature and mathematics will be the first GCSEs to be graded from 9 to 1. Students with such grades will receive them on 24 August 2017. English language will include an assessment of speaking skills that will not contribute towards a student’s 9 to 1 grade. Spoken language performance will be reported as a separate result, at the level of either “pass”, “merit”, “distinction” or “not classified”.
5. Another 20 subjects will adopt 9 to 1 grading in 2018, with most others following in 2019. During the three-year transition, students will receive a mixture of letter and number grades. But numbers will dominate students’ results as early as 2018 when the most popular subjects make the switch. All science subjects, French, German and Spanish, geography, history and religious studies, art and design, drama and physical education are all included in the 2018 list of subjects. Summer 2019 includes topics such as business, economics, Chinese and sociology, while 2020 completes the transition with relatively obscure GCSEs such as biblical Hebrew and Gujarati.
4. The new grades are being introduced to signal that GCSEs have been reformed and to “better differentiate between students of different abilities”, according to the Government. Justine Greening, education secretary, said: “The new grading scale is intended to better recognise the achievements of high-attaining pupils and ensure parents have greater clarity over how their child performs in their exams. It will also distinguish the new, more challenging GCSEs clearly from the predecessor qualifications.”
3. In the first year each new GCSE subject is introduced, broadly the same proportion of students will receive grade 4 or above as would have got a grade C or above in the old system. Since 2009 this proportion has been 67-69%. Back in the 1990s, the proportion graded C and above was 48-56%.
2. These GCSE changes are only happening in England. Wales and Northern Ireland are not introducing the new 9 to 1 grading scale as part of their changes to GCSEs. Both Wales and Northern Ireland retain grades A* to G, but students may be able to take some English GCSEs graded 9 to 1. Northern Ireland students will be able to secure a C*, which will be equivalent to the new grade 5 in England. This infographic compares the changes in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. In Scotland, students sit Nationals, which replaced Standard Grades in 2014.
1. Videos such as the one above are being used to promote awareness of the new GCSE grading structure, but it’s important that recruitment professionals fully understand the changes. Similarly, hiring managers need to understand the new 9-to-1 grades and how they relate to the current regime. You can see how the new 9 to 1 GCSE grades compare with the A* to G scale below.
GCSE grade 4 or 5 and above?
Greening has recently attempted to clarify some confusion around the grades 4 and 5. Should further education (FE) colleges and employers require a grade 4 and higher or a grade 5 and higher?
“I want to provide certainty about how this new grading will work and, in particular, the consequences for individual pupils of achieving a grade 4 or grade 5,” wrote Greening in a letter to Neil Carmichael, chair of the education select committee.
“Rather than reporting on the ‘good pass’, we will instead distinguish between a grade 4 as a ‘standard pass’ and a grade 5 as a ‘strong pass’ and report on both.
“Under the new system, a grade 4 and above will be equivalent to a C and above. This is – and will remain – the level that pupils must achieve in order not to be required to continue studying English and maths post 16.
“Therefore, a GCSE pass at new grade 4 will continue to have real currency for individual pupils as they progress to further study and employment. Where employers, FE providers and universities currently accept a grade C we would expect them to continue recognising a grade 4.”
This graphic from Ofqual provides an estimate of the proportion of students at each grade in GCSE English language and mathematics. It clearly demonstrates that 4 and above is equivalent to the current C and above, with around 70% of students achieving this benchmark.