Why are GCSEs in England changing?

We are committed to achieving the highest standards in our schools. That’s why we have revised our GCSE qualifications in England to make them more demanding. We have done this so our young people have the knowledge and skills they need to succeed in 21st century Britain, and to match those of their peers in high-performing education systems elsewhere in the world.

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

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

When are they changing?

From August 2017, the new qualifications began being awarded with number grades, rather than letters. The new grading scale runs from 9 to 1 instead of A* to G, with 9 the highest grade.

Not all GCSEs are changing at once – English language, English literature and maths were the first to change, with students sitting these exams in the summer of 2017. You can find the list of subjects in which students will be sitting reformed GCSEs in 2018 in our factsheet.

By 2020, all GCSEs in England will be reformed and graded using numbers instead of letters. However, most GCSEs taken by students at schools in Wales and Northern Ireland will continue to be graded A* to G. Ofqual, the exams regulator, have produced guidance which helps explain the differences and similarities between GCSE qualifications in England, Wales and Northern Ireland.


Why is the grading scale changing?

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

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

Decorative image depicting GCSE grades

What will the impact be on grades?

The old and new GCSE grading scales do not directly compare but, as the diagram below shows, there are three points where they align:

  • 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; and
  • The bottom of grade 1 is aligned with the bottom of grade G.
New GCSE grading system

Although the exams will cover more challenging content, this won’t mean students get a lower grade than they might have under the old system.

It is right that students are not disadvantaged simply by being among the first to sit the new GCSEs. The approach used by Ofqual ensures that, all things being equal, broadly the same proportion of students get grades 1, 4 and 7 and above in any subject, as would have got G, C or A and above respectively in the old system.

What will be considered as a “standard” or “strong” pass?

The Department for Education recognises grade 4 – broadly the equivalent of the bottom two thirds of a grade C – as a “standard pass”. This is the minimum level that students need to reach in English and maths: otherwise they will need to continue to study these subjects as part of their post-16 education. A grade 4 should be valued as a passport to future study and employment and is the threshold for a Level 2 qualification. There is no re-take requirement for other subjects.

For the purposes of school accountability, the Department recognises a GCSE grade 5 or above in English or maths as a “strong pass”. The proportion of students achieving at least a grade 5 in English and maths is one of the headline performance measures for schools, reflecting our ambition to raise standards in schools. This is in line with the expectations of top performing education systems around the world.

Employers, universities and colleges will continue to set their own GCSE entry criteria. The new qualifications have been developed to ensure young people have the knowledge and skills they require for employment or further study.

Find out more about how the reforms will affect you…

Parent image

If you're a student or a parent

You may be wondering how this will affect you/your child’s results and options for continuing in education or finding work.

You may already have predicted grades that use the new grading scale, or may have noticed that students began sitting and receiving exam results for reformed GCSEs in the summer of 2017, so hopefully it's becoming more familiar to you.

Colleges, universities and employers will continue to set their own entry criteria, and we are working with these groups to make sure that they understand the new grading scale.

If you have any questions about your future options, we recommend you consult the UCAS website, the National Careers Service, or speak directly to your school.
You can follow GCSE grades 9 to 1 on Facebook.

We have also developed this factsheet, which we hope you find helpful.

Employer/HEI/FE image

If you’re an employer, or work in HE or FE

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. If a grade C is currently your expected level for entry, this aligns most closely to a grade 4.

If you need any more information about how your organisation needs to adapt to the new GCSEs, we have developed this factsheet, which we hope you find useful. There is also a GCSE grades 9 to 1 LinkedIn group that you can join for 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, many of you will be teaching the new GCSE courses, with your first students having sat exams in English and maths in summer 2017. The remaining subjects are being introduced and examined over the next few years. We appreciate all of the work that you have done and continue to do to prepare students for these new exams.

For measuring school performance, Progress 8 measures how well schools have helped students of all abilities to perform across eight qualifications in comparison to the other students nationally with similar starting points and will continue to be the key school performance measure.

The Department for Education will also publish a headline measure of performance in English and maths, showing the percentage of students achieving a “strong pass” (grade 5 or above). As additional information, we will publish in performance tables the percentage of students gaining a “standard pass” (grade 4 or above) in both English and maths.

From 2018 (that is, performance data published in October 2018 and January 2019), the EBacc threshold measure based on the percentage of those gaining grade 5 of above will be replaced by an EBacc Average Point Score.

Further detail can be found in our 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. We would be grateful for your continued support in spreading the word to students and parents.

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

For more information about which exams are changing and when, visit our interactive timeline.