There has been a certain amount of fuss made about the new GCSE grades in recent weeks. Those taking GCSEs in English language, English literature and maths this summer will find they receive number grades, not letters as in the past.

The new grades are a just a small element of a much bigger and more important reform – trying to lift standards in our schools to the level being reached in other countries.

Barnaby Lenon, chair of the Independent Schools Council and a board member of the exams regulator Ofqual, has summarised the changes in an informative article for iNews.

‘Dumbed down standards’

The standard of our GCSEs was dumbed down after 2000 and other countries moved far ahead in terms of what they expected 16-year-olds to know. Michael Gove asked that GCSE syllabuses and questions be toughened up, not least in maths.

Because the reformed GCSEs are tougher it would be unfair on the pupils taking them to retain the same GCSE grading scale as applied to their predecessors. There simply had to be a way of signalling to universities and employers that pupils taking the reformed syllabuses were taking a different type of exam.

That is why the numerical scale was devised – having an alphabetical scale of any sort would have been confusing and unfair. Secondly, grade inflation had created a situation where far too many pupils were getting the top grades (A and A* in old money). So it made sense to divide the old A/A* into three grades (7, 8 and 9).

Stretch the top pupils

The new top grade, 9, is more demanding than the former top grade, A*, for a reason: we need to stretch our top pupils more, in line with other high-achieving countries. The number of grade 9s will be rationed to the very best candidates.

The thing to remember is that a grade 8 is still an extremely good result, easily good enough for entry to top universities. The new grading scale is very easy to understand. It runs from 1 to 9 with 9 being the best. A 4 is a pass and is the same level as an old C grade.

A 7 is the same level as an old A grade. Simple isn’t it? Other grades don’t correspond exactly to the old grades but they do roughly – a 5 is a high C or low B, a 6 is a high B and so on. But holding in your mind “4=C and 7=A” is really all you need to do to grasp the relationship between the old and reformed grades.

No sudden slump

The proportion of pupils getting a grade 4 or better and grade 7 or better will be roughly the same with the reformed GCSEs as the proportion awarded last year to those getting a C or better and an A or better in the old GCSEs. So nationally there will not be a sudden slump in results because of the introduction of these new, more demanding exams.

So the new GCSE grading scale is a slight nuisance but a necessary one. It is part of our journey towards having one of the more effective education systems in the world.

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