New GCSE ‘pass’ lowered from grade 5 to 4 in DfE U-turn

Justine Greening aims to provide 'certainty' by replacing a 'good pass' with both a 'standard pass' (grade 4) and a 'strong pass' (grade 5)

Eleanor Busby

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The benchmark "pass" grade for tougher new reformed GCSEs is being lowered from a grade 5 to 4, the Department for Education announced today.

Numerical GCSE grades from 9 (the top) to 1, rather than A* to G, are being phased in, beginning with maths, English literature and English language this summer.

Originally the DfE said a grade 5 – the equivalent of a high C or low B in current GCSEs – would be seen as a “good pass”, in the line with the aim of the new qualifications representing more of a challenge.

But the picture was muddied with the news that a grade 4 – roughly equivalent to the existing grade C – would be sufficient for pupils to avoid mandatory post-16 resits for GCSEs in English and maths until at least 2019.​

Today, education secretary Justine Greening attempted to end the confusion by announcing that grade 4 will be the “standard pass” and grade 5 will be deemed a “strong pass”.

And the situation became even more complicated this afternoon as the DfE told Tes that for the English Baccalaureate GCSE measure – something the government wants 90 per cent of pupils to achieve – will be measured by both grades 4 and 5.

In a letter to the Commons education select committee Ms Greening writes: "I want to provide certainty about how this new grading will work and, in particular, the consequences for individual pupils of achieving a grade 4 or grade 5.

"Rather than reporting on the 'good pass', we will instead distinguish between a grade 4 as a 'standard pass' and a grade 5 as a 'strong pass' and report on both."

She added: "Where employers, FE providers and universities currently accept a grade C we would expect them to continue recognising a grade 4."

'A credible achievement'

The alteration – which comes just months before the first wave of reformed GCSEs will be sat  – follows concerns that pupils could miss out on entry to sixth forms, further education courses and apprenticeships following confusion about the new numerical grading system.

Ms Greening writes: "I want to be very clear to schools, employers, colleges and pupils themselves that a 'standard pass' is a credible achievement and one that should be valued as a passport to future study and employment."

But in the school performance tables this year both the "standard pass" and "strong pass" will appear to ensure standards continue to be raised, she said. 

"This will not affect individual pupils, but – alongside other performance measures – will allow parents, Ofsted and others to see which schools are getting the best results from their pupils, ensuring we can provide more support to those schools that need it," Ms Greening said. 

Geoff Barton, who becomes the ASCL union's leader next month, previously blamed a lack of clear communication from the government for a variety of entry requirements for this September.

He said: "On one hand, schools are going to be judged on the number of pupils who achieve a grade 5 or better in English and maths and in the EBacc (English Baccalaureate).

"On the other hand, the government says that grade 4 is enough for pupils to progress to the next stage of their education if sixth forms and colleges decide it 'meets their requirements'.”

Mr Barton, head of King Edward VI School in Suffolk, said the numbers planning to join his sixth-form this year appeared lower than anticipated – and he thinks it is because pupils think they won’t be able to get in with a grade 4.

And last week, Sally Collier, chief regulator of exams watchdog Ofqual, told Tes that there was a risk that deserving children would not enter post-16 courses if the new grades were misunderstood by parents and colleges. 

She admitted that many businesses and parents would be “confused” by the changes to grading and that communicating the changes was a “big job”.

“I think the biggest risks are [if] those that are using the new 9 to 1s for entrance requirements – whether that be a college, apprenticeship, or a particular course where these qualifications are used as entrance hurdles – don’t understand them, or parents don’t fully understand what their children need to get to their next stage, then that’s the biggest risk,” Ms Collier added.

When asked whether students should be expected to get a grade 4 or 5, Ms Collier said: “We have been very clear in not talking about grade 5. We have set out the scale and have set out that the same proportion of students will get a 4 and above as a C and above.”

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Eleanor Busby

Eleanor Busby is a reporter at TES 

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