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GCSE reform: Ofqual confirms numbered grading as it reveals major overhaul

Reformed GCSEs will rate candidates using numerical 1-9 grades, instead of current the A*-G scale, exams regulator Ofqual confirmed today. 

The change to the grading system will help differentiate between higher ability candidates, the watchdog said.

The first three of the new qualifications – in English literature, English language, and maths – will be introduced to schools for first teaching from 2015. Most of the rest of the GCSE subjects commonly used in schools are expected to follow in a second phase a year later.

It means some pupils will end up with a mix of lettered and numbered GCSE grades.

But Ofqual chief regulator, Glenys Stacey, said it was a “consequence of the phasing of reform worth living with” because the staggered introduction would “allow a much better chance of success”.

“For many people, the move away from traditional grades, A, B,C and so on, may be hard to understand,” she said. “But it is important. The new qualifications will be significantly different and we need to signal this clearly.”

The reforms will also mean a big reduction in coursework or controlled assessment and a move away from the modular system, with most assessment done through end-of-course summer exams.

Today’s announcements on structure will be followed by a separate consultation in December on “standards” and how difficult the new GCSEs should be, taking comparisons from overseas systems into account.

Michael Gove, education secretary, has said he wants the qualifications to be “explicitly harder” than existing GCSEs.

But last night Ms Stacey raised the possibility that he may not get his way – saying that she wanted a public debate and was keeping an “open mind” on the issue.

She added that it would be “ridiculous” at this stage to make any assumptions about where the “pass mark” will be in the new grades and whether it will be equivalent in standard to the current C grade.

All three of the first new GCSEs will be exam-only. In English language a fifth of the marks will be allocated for accurate spelling, punctuation and grammar.

Maths will have two tiers of exams, confirming a setback for Mr Gove, who had originally wanted to abolish all tiering which he condemned as a “cap on aspiration”.

Ofqual has also rejected his suggestion that the subject could have an “extension paper” for more able pupils. Instead the regulator has settled on two overlapping tiered papers in maths. A foundation tier will cover grades 1-5 and a higher tier will cover grades 4-9.

“It is not possible to design one assessment that could properly assess students of all abilities,” Ofqual said.

But tiering will be removed from both English GCSEs and the regulator pledged it would only be used in other subjects where “untiered papers will not allow students at the lower end of the ability range to demonstrate their knowledge and skills, or will not stretch the most able”.

In June, when it began consulting on the new GCSEs, Ofqual proposed a 1-8 numerical grading system – with 8 the highest.

It has now decided to add a ninth grade, partly to “avoid the risk of people assuming that eight new grades would map onto the current eight [A*-G] grades”. There will also be an unclassified U grade. 

There had been concerns about the “bunching” of grades in existing GCSEs between B to D. Originally Ofqual proposed increasing the number of grades at the middle and top end, to improve differentiation, and reducing the number at the lower end where relatively few students are currently awarded the lower grades.

But an extra grade is expected to do the same job without reducing the opportunities available for less able candidates to demonstrate their progress.

Ofqual also hopes the numerical grading will help people distinguish England’s new GCSEs from those in Wales and Northern Ireland which will not be subject to the same reforms.

The regulator is planning to consult in the new year over which of the more than 70 existing subjects should be allowed to keep the GCSE brand.

Ms Stacey sought to reassure schools, saying: “The aim is not to stop important, established subjects, but rather to make sure everyone is clear about what a GCSE is and is not.”

But she suggested the regulator could be tougher about what GCSEs it would accept from exam boards in the future.

“At the moment if an exam board comes to me with a proposal for a GCSE in astrophysics or astroturf, either one is equally likely to lay claim to the GCSE brand,” Ms Stacey said.   

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