Scale of confusion over new GCSE grades is revealed

13th January 2017 at 00:00
Two-thirds of students and parents don't understand the new grading scale
Calls for better communication as survey shows most students and parents don’t understand the 9-1 system

Widespread confusion about the new numerical grades at GCSE still exists, research shows – despite the fact that the system will come into effect this summer.

Findings from Ofqual, the exams watchdog, reveal that more than two-thirds of students and parents do not understand the 9-1 grading scale that will replace the A*-G system at GCSE (see graphic, below).

Meanwhile, more than four-fifths (84 per cent) of human resources (HR) professionals and more than three-quarters (76 per cent) of small-business owners remain clueless about the specific question of what a new grade 1 will be worth, research shared exclusively with TES shows.

The numbered grading system – which places 9 as the top grade and 1 as the lowest – will be used for the first time in the summer after students sit exams in the reformed English, English literature and maths GCSEs.

But Ofqual’s survey of 850 people – including heads, teachers, students, parents, employers and staff from further education colleges and universities – suggests that a lot of work still needs to be done to communicate how the system will work at key stage 4.

More than a third (36 per cent) of FE colleges and training providers do not understand the grading scale, and one in 10 secondary teachers is still confused by the reforms, the data shows.

The department has not had any significant discussions with us about the communication strategy

Malcolm Trobe, interim general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, has called for a coordinated strategy for communicating about the changes and what they mean. “The department has not had any significant discussions with us about the communication strategy. We have raised it but this is now January and those results are coming out soon,” he said.

The Ofqual research shows that around three-fifths of parents with children in Year 10 and Year 11 – who will sit a mixture of reformed and unreformed GCSEs – do not know that 1 is the bottom grade.

Mr Trobe said he believed that some of the confusion stemmed from the numerical grading system used for the old Certificate of Secondary Education (CSE), which placed 1 at the top.

‘Spreading the message’

In November, Ofqual sent a letter to schools in England that included links to sample text messages and paragraphs for newsletters to help explain the new system to parents.

But Mr Trobe said that individual schools should not be depended upon to explain the reforms.


Michael Turner, director general of the Joint Council for Qualifications, said that spreading the message would be a “huge task”.

The exam boards were working with the Department for Education, Ofqual, university admissions body Ucas and online forum the Student Room to do so, he added. “This work will be stepped up as we approach the exam series.”

Ofqual chief regulator Sally Collier said she did not want there to be “any surprises” this summer, adding: “It’s really important that we spread the word that GCSE grades are changing from letters to numbers, and explain why.”

The qualifications watchdog plans to launch a video and new social media platform about the overhaul.

A DfE spokesperson said: “Our GCSE reforms will create gold-standard qualifications that match the best education systems in the world and allow young people to compete in an increasingly global workplace.

“We continue to work closely with the sector to ensure they understand what the changes will mean for them when they come into effect later this year.”


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