Why have GCSEs in England changed?

We are committed to achieving the highest standards in our schools. That’s why we have changed GCSEs in England to make them more demanding. The new GCSEs are better equipping young people with the knowledge and skills they need to succeed in 21st century Britain, and match the best performing education systems in the world.

The new, more challenging GCSEs will also help young people‎ develop the skills that employers tell us they need.

The new qualifications are the result of a long and careful process of reform, which involved extensive consultation with schools, universities and employers.

What’s changing?

The new grading scale runs from 9 to 1 instead of A* to G, with 9 the highest grade.

This summer, almost all GCSEs being examined have been reformed. GCSEs have changed gradually over the past few years:

  • In the summer of 2017, the first reformed GCSEs were introduced in English language, English literature and maths.
  • In 2018, a further 20 new GCSE subjects were introduced. These included sciences, history and geography, and some modern foreign languages.
  • In 2019, a further 25 new GCSEs are being examined for the first time.
  • By 2020, all GCSEs in England will be graded using numbers instead of letters.

Most GCSEs taken by students in Wales and Northern Ireland will continue to be graded A* to G. To help explain the differences and similarities between GCSE qualifications in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, Ofqual, the qualifications regulator in England, has produced further guidance.

How has the grading scale changed?

The new scale recognises more clearly the achievements of high-attaining students, as the additional grades allow for greater differentiation.

Changing from letters to numbers also allows anyone – for example an employer – to see easily whether a student has taken a new, more challenging GCSE, or an old reformed GCSE.

Decorative image depicting GCSE grades

What is the impact on grades?

The new GCSE grading scale is not directly equivalent to the old A* to G one. However, there are some comparable points between the old grades and the new ones:

  • The bottom of grade 7 is aligned with the bottom of grade A
  • The bottom of grade 4 is aligned with the bottom of grade C
  • The bottom of grade 1 is aligned with the bottom of grade G
New GCSE grading system

Although the new exams cover more challenging content, students will not be disadvantaged by being among the first to sit the new GCSEs. The approach used by Ofqual will mean that broadly the same proportion of students will get grades 1, 4 and 7 and above in any subject, as would have got G, C or A and above in the old grading system.

There will be fewer grade 9s awarded than the old A*, to identify exceptional performance.

What is considered a “standard” or “strong” pass?

Grade 4 – broadly the equivalent of the bottom two thirds of an old grade C – is the “standard pass”, in all subjects. A grade 4 or above marks a similar achievement to the old grade C or above. It is a credible achievement for a young person that should be valued as a passport to future study and employment.

Students who do not attain a grade 4 or above in English and/or maths must continue to study these subjects as part of their post-16 education. This requirement does not apply to other subjects. More information is available in this guidance.

Employers, universities and colleges will continue to set their own GCSE entry criteria.

A grade 5 or above in English or maths is recognised as a “strong pass” for the purposes of school accountability only. It is part of the way in which we monitor school performance, helping us to raise standards in English and maths.

Find out more about how the reforms will affect you…

Employer/HEI/FE image

If you’re an employer, or work in higher or further education

Since the summer of 2017, you may have begun receiving applications and CVs from young people in England who have taken the new, more challenging GCSEs, with the new numerical grading scale.

We know it’s important that you’re able to compare these with the grades that you’re used to seeing. You may have already considered where to set your entry requirements using the new system.

Our employer factsheet provides more information on how your organisation needs to adapt to the new GCSEs. Ofqual’s GCSE LinkedIn group also provides more regular updates.

Alternatively, UCAS or Ofqual may be able to help you.

Teacher/education image

If you’re a teacher or work in schools

By now, you will be teaching the new GCSEs, whichever subject you teach, and your students will have been sitting some of the new GCSEs over the last two years.

We appreciate all of the work that you have done and continue to do to prepare students for these new qualifications.

There are six headline accountability measures used to measure school performance. Further details are available in the secondary technical guide.

Together with Ofqual, we have developed a slide pack about qualification reforms. Additionally, there is a factsheet for parents, which may be a useful resource for parents’ evenings.

Ofqual has also published further guidance.

If you have any further questions, we recommend you contact Ofqual or the relevant exam board.

Find out more about exams in England.