GCSEs: Lack of science ‘safety net’ grades 'unfair'

Heads fear the lack of 'safety net' grade 3s in higher-tier GCSE combined science will mean undeserved failure for some

Will the removal of 'safety net' grades for GCSE combined science hit students this year?

The lack of a “safety net” grade for students incorrectly entered into the higher-tier combined science GCSE paper this year has sparked fears that pupils could be unfairly failed as a result.

Last year, Ofqual decided to award “safety net” grades of 3-3 in combined science – which is worth two GCSEs – for pupils who were entered incorrectly for the higher-tier paper, when they should have sat papers in the foundation tier.

In the higher-tier paper, the lowest possible grades for combined science are a 4-4, but last year Ofqual intervened to prevent students from failing completely if they had narrowly missed out on these grades.


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Ofqual usually allows "safety-net" grades of 4-3 for students who just miss the grades required for 4-4. But in 2018, it lowered this to 3-3 after a number of students – who should have been entered for the foundation tier – looked like they would achieve Us based on their performance.

However, this year, the lowest grade a pupil can achieve in the higher tier paper is again 4-3, with those who miss out on this awarded an unclassified result.

GCSE grade fears

Ofqual has advised schools to enter pupils with a predicted grade 4 or 5 in combined science or languages into foundation papers.

However, a leading headteachers’ union has expressed concern that the lack of a “safety net” in combined science this year could lead to some pupils missing out on two of their GCSE grades.

Sarah Hannafin, senior policy adviser for the NAHT heads' union, said: “We supported the safety net last year. The new GCSEs meant it was more difficult for teachers to know which tiers to enter pupils for.

“It is difficult to say whether the decision to remove the safety net will have a negative impact on pupils this year. Although additional advice has been provided, decisions about tiering can be difficult to make, especially with relatively new qualifications.

“The risk remains that a small number of pupils could fail their combined science GCSE this year because they were entered for the higher tier and didn’t get enough marks on that day in that exam, which does seem unfair.”

However, Duncan Baldwin, deputy policy director at the Association of School and College Leaders, has said he thinks the lack of a 3-3 grade in combined science this year is unlikely to impact results.

“Headteachers are very careful about who they enter for each tier,” he said. “They will have learned from last year not to enter pupils [with a grade 4/5 predicted grade] for the higher-tier paper.”

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