GCSE shake-up: Ultra-high grade for top performers


Ofqual's Glenys Stacey outlines the 'top grade' plan

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A new top-level GCSE grade will be awarded to the most talented 20,000 pupils each year, in proposals for a shake-up of England's exam grades.

The Ofqual exam regulator has launched a consultation on a grading system that will rank from nine at the very top down to one for the lowest performers.

The changes, to be introduced from 2017, will also link exam grades to international Pisa tests.

Ofqual's Glenys Stacey says it will improve the "calibration" of exams.

But head teachers leaders suggested there were still "parts of the puzzle missing".

The substantial changes, being put out for consultation, would provide a much clearer distinction between high-flying pupils currently achieving A and A* grades.

The highest grade - to be described as a grade nine - will be awarded to only half the pupils now achieving an A*, according to Ofqual's proposals.

International benchmarks

In last summer's GCSE exams, there were 6.8% of pupils graded as A*. The new highest grade would be awarded to only the top 3%, or about 20,000 pupils.

Under the new system, an A grade would equate to a grade seven - and the current C grade, widely seen as the pass level, would become a grade four.


  • GCSEs to be graded from nine to one, replacing A*-to-G grades
  • Grade nine will be highest, at standard equivalent to top half of A*
  • Grade five will be linked to international Pisa tests
  • Grade four will be equivalent to current C grade
  • Grade one will be F and G grades
  • Introduced for new-style GCSEs in English and maths to be taught from Sept 2015
  • First of new exam grades awarded summer 2017
  • National Reference Test to be taken by sample of pupils, piloted from 2016

For the first time, there will be a link between England's exam grades and international benchmarks.

The results of Pisa tests in competitor countries, which have become an influential measure for international comparisons, will be used to establish grade five.

It will be expected to be set at about half or two-thirds of a grade higher than the current grade C.

And it remains to be decided whether grade four or grade five will become the expected level in future, for measures such as school league tables and minimum standards for schools.

A sample of pupils will also take a new test - the National Reference Test - which will be used to monitor the performance of each cohort, so that examiners will have a reference point for differences in ability between different year groups.

These changes will begin with three subjects - maths, English language and English literature.

These will be the first wave of tougher GCSEs, to be taught from September 2015, with the first awards under the proposed new system in summer 2017.

Other subjects are planned to follow, including history, geography and some sciences.

'Greater accuracy'

If adopted, the proposed changes would mean that GCSEs in England would have a different grading system and structure from GCSEs in Wales and Northern Ireland, extending the differences between the systems.

Ofqual chief Glenys Stacey says the changes are intended to "strengthen awarding" and to give greater accuracy in grades.

Russell Hobby, leader of the National Association of Head Teachers, "broadly welcomed" the proposals and hoped the consultation would help to address some of the "discontent" over marking and grades.

But a high-performing independent school rejected the plans - and said it would be more likely to make them switch to International GCSEs.

"For years governments of different political complexions have mistakenly tried to use GCSE qualifications as a measure of both a young person's learning and a school's performance," said Helen Stringer, vice-principal of the Stephen Perse Foundation school in Cambridge.

"This current proposal simply aims to extend this flawed system so that the qualification also has to become a measure of the quality of the national education system."

Brian Lightman, general secretary of the Association for School and College Leaders, said there were still "parts of the puzzle" missing in how the new system would work.

"Until it is made clear to teachers what students need to know in order to achieve a grade, and they have detailed specifications and sample questions, they will not be able to plan for these examinations.

"While we understand the government's wish to raise the bar by aligning some grades to Pisa, this raises all kinds of issues. Pisa is a completely different kind of exam than the new GCSEs.

"We welcome the proposal to introduce a reference test, which will help to make an objective judgement about whether standards have improved or not year or year. The careful consideration being given to different ways of awarding grades is also welcome."

Chris Keates, leader of the Nasuwt teachers' union, warned that: "Schools, parents and pupils are being thrown into further confusion over yet more reform to the qualifications system."


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  • rate this

    Comment number 498.

    So we go on and revive the old standards where a pass was worth having and an A grade a high achievement ......this is good as long as we put money into vocational training and apprenticeships too, education that caters for as many as possible and develops many areas ...oh dear that means a clever education secretary is needed , some money and a PM with vision, skill and commitment to the people.

  • rate this

    Comment number 489.

    Messing about with the grading system is an expensive irrelevance. Those with the top grade demonstrate that they can be trained up to a higher level.

  • rate this

    Comment number 485.

    Thats right add yet another meaningless grade to a system that barely stays long enough for people to understand what they have achieved.
    The constant changes and tweaking of exams and grades seems like the product of attention deficit politicians.
    Thanks god I grew up in an era of A or O levels, how long till this new grade is dumbed down by dim politicians chasing sound bite politics.

  • rate this

    Comment number 447.

    Education needs a big reform in the UK, the exams are far too easy and over the years have become a race to the bottom not the top. Make the exams harder, reduce the number of exam boards and most importantly, teach the children the subject at hand rather than teaching them to pass the exam!

  • rate this

    Comment number 398.

    I would prefer a system (even if not perfect) where I have the certainty that a grade 9 means that a potential employee is in the top 3%... The current (politically motivated) grade inflation is not credible and makes comparability between academic years worthless, so I see no benefit in keeping the current system.


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