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Blog - New GCSE grades explained: what is the 9 – 1 system and how does it affect students?

Teenagers across Britain are eagerly waiting for their GCSE results pour in today, after months of revision and summer exams.

Schools, teachers and pupils in England are also braced for confusion, however, as the 9 – 1 grading scale introduced last year replaces the old A* – G in even more subjects.

Here’s everything you need to know about the new system if you’re not sure what it means.

What is the new system and how will it affect me?

Last year, the 9-1 grading system was only used in English language, English literature and Maths.

This year, it will used in 20 more subjects (see below for a full list).

The new scale will be phased in to all other GCSEs over the next few years.

The new scale is a dramatic shift away from the A*- G system that students, parents, and teachers have been familiar with for decades, but exam boards say it is “anchored” in the old A* – G system.

The bottom of a grade 7 is equivalent to the bottom of a grade A, for example, and the bottom of grade 4 is equivalent to the bottom of a grade C. The bottom of a 1 is aligned to the bottom of a G.

The government expects, therefore, that a pupil who scored a C or above under last year’s grading scale will receive a 4 or above.

The government introduced the scale to inject more rigour into the exam system, and to allow for more differentiation among the highest-achievers.

This year, as few as 200 star pupils are expected to achieve a clean sweep of top grades under the new GCSE grading system, according to a recent study published by Cambridge Assessment, one of the country’s biggest exam boards which is responsible for both GCSEs and iGCSEs.

This represents a 90 per cent drop in the number of students receiving the top grade compared to the previous system, where 2,000 were awarded straight A*s.

Last year, almost 51,000 grade nines were given out across the three reformed subjects, English Literature, English Language and Maths.

Of these, around 30,000 went to girls. Just over 2,000 students in England were awarded a clean sweep of straight nines, which is less than a third of the 6,500 straight A*s candidates from last year, according to Datalab.

s there room for confusion?

The government has already spent hundreds of thousands of pounds explaining the new system to schools, students and employers in an effort to reduce confusion.

But you should still expect to see a fair number of confused faces on 23rd August.

In fact, research from exams watchdog Ofqual found earlier this year that more than some 23 per cent of employers wrongly believed that 1 was the top grade, compared with 64 per cent who correctly stated that 9 was.

Meanwhile, eight per cent of universities also thought that 1 was the top grade, along with six per cent of headteachers, the poll found. The proportion rose to 16 per cent among parents.

Much of the confusion has centred around which grade is the equivalent of a ‘C’, which provides the golden ticket into many sixth form colleges and apprenticeship programmes. The DofE initially said that a grade 5 – the equivalent of a high C or low B – will be seen as a “good pass”.

At the same time, however, a grade 4 would be sufficient to avoid compulsory English and Maths re-sits. This left schools and sixth form colleges scratching their heads – which is the long-recognised golden ticket into sixth-form college, a 4 or a 5?

Justine Greening, the Education Secretary, was forced to step in to end the confusion by announcing last year that grade 4 will be a “standard pass” and grade 5 a “strong pass”.

But many students, teachers, and employers will undoubtedly remain unconvinced that a “standard” pass and a “strong” pass are really so different.

Is the new system likely to confuse entry into sixth forms?

Quite possibly. A survey of sixth form schools and colleges carried out by UCAS last year found widespread disagreement on what constitutes a satisfactory pass (the equivalent of a grade C) required by most for entry. Thirty-eight percent of the sixth forms surveyed chose grade 4 as their minimum requirement, while 42 percent opted for a grade 5. A huge four out of ten of sixth forms said they did not feel confident assessing a pupil’s ability based on the new 9 – 1 scale.

Indeed, the chief regulator at Ofqual last year warned that deserving children could miss out on courses and apprenticeships if the new numerical grades are not understood by businesses and colleges that set entrance requirements.

What does the confusion mean for students?

Geoff Barton, head of King Edward VI School in Suffolk and incoming leader of the ASCL union, told the Times Educational Supplement last year that several pupils could be shirking sixth form under the mistaken belief that they won’t get in. The number of students planning to join his sixth form this autumn is lower than anticipated, he said, pointing to confusion over the grade 4 “good pass” and grade 5 “strong pass” as a key cause.

“When we talk to a few [students], they say ‘Well, it might be because I’m going to get a grade 4 instead of a grade 5 and I won’t be able to get in’.”

Will A-Levels be affected too?

No. A-Levels will continue be marked on an A* – E system.

Does this apply to all of Britain?

No. Wales will retain the traditional grading scale while pupils in Northern Ireland will have a mixture of A*-G and numerical grades.

Your GCSE results day questions answered

Have a question regarding GCSE results day? What is the best next step for your child’s education? The Telegraph are hosting a Q&A session with a number of established education specialists to answer all of your GCSE related questions.