GCSE results day 2017: A guide to number grades, new English and maths curriculum, and headline figures

GCSE results guide. Picture: DAVID DAVIES/PA Wire

GCSE results guide. Picture: DAVID DAVIES/PA Wire - Credit: PA

With numbers replacing letters in some GCSE results this year, reflecting a new tougher curriculum, here is a guide to the new system for parents in Suffolk and Essex.

What you need to know for GCSE results day on Thursday, August 24, 2017.

• 2017 is an historic year. For the first time, the number-based GCSE grading scale is being used, but only for English and maths. Three bigger ‘waves’ will follow in 2018, 2019 and 2020.

• A one-to nine grading scale will be used in English language, English literature and maths. Nine is the best. One is the worst.

• Four is a ‘standard pass’, equal to a low C. Five is a ‘strong pass’, equal to a high C, and is the new benchmark. Seven to nine is equal to A and A*. Three to one is equal to D to G.

• Between 2017 and 2019, GCSE exam certificates will have a combination of number and letter grades. By 2020, exam certificates will contain only number grades.

GCSE number grading scale. Source: Department for Education.

GCSE number grading scale. Source: Department for Education. - Credit: Archant

• The new grades are being brought in to signal that GCSEs have been reformed – they are now more challenging – and to better differentiate between students of different abilities.

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• The old and new grading scales do not directly compare. But in the first year each new GCSE subject is introduced, broadly the same proportion of students will get grades one, four and seven and above as would have got grades G, C and A and above respectively in the old system.

• Fewer grade nines will be awarded than A*s (around 5%, down from 8%).

• Those who score below four in English and maths will have to retake them in post-16 education. There are no other subject retake requirements.

• There are now more exams and less coursework.

• The 20 subjects following suit with the grading scale in 2018 include: biology, chemistry, physics, computer science, French, Spanish, RE, geography, music, and history.

• The 26 subjects following suit in 2019 include: psychology, ancient history, business, ICT, and media studies

When the new GCSE subjects are being taught and when their new one-to-nine grading scales are being

When the new GCSE subjects are being taught and when their new one-to-nine grading scales are being released. Source: Department for Education. - Credit: Archant

• The five subjects following suit in 2020 are: Biblical Hebrew, Gujarati, Persian, Portuguese, and Turkish.

• On results day, schools will be judged on the proportion of pupils who gain at least a grade four (the old grade C) in English and maths. Suffolk recorded 60.2% last year, above 59.3% across England.

• The benchmark Progress 8 scores for students, schools and local authorities – measuring student progress between the end of primary school and secondary school – will not be known until the autumn, most likely October.

What do headteachers make of the changes?

Heads in Suffolk and Essex have issued fresh warnings over the reformed GCSEs which undergo a major transformation to the controversial number-based grading system this summer.

Year 11 students have been guinea pigs for the tougher English and maths GCSE curriculums introduced in September 2015. The two subjects are the first to crossover to the nine-to-one grading scale, replacing the A*-G system which is being phased out over four years.

Fewer children are expected to attain the highest mark of nine – with seven to nine covering A and A* – and under half are expected to achieve the new pass mark of grade four (the old C).

The proportion of students gaining a grade four in English and maths is now the new benchmark, replacing the five good GCSEs measure.

The new number system reflects the new rigorous and traditional curriculum designed to stretch pupils to the limits of their ability. The government believes it is the only way to compete with education powerhouses such as South Korea.

David Hutton, headteacher at Northgate High School in Ipswich, said: “Irrespective of the merits of the new curriculum, the demands on the staff introducing new courses at GCSE at the same time have been way beyond what can reasonably be expected of this dedicated group of professionals, who feel genuine anxiety when unable to provide the same, well-informed support for current pupils and students that they have for previous cohorts.

“However, given the impossibility on the day results are published of comparing schools’ performances, one positive side-effect should be a total focus on celebrating the achievements of individual pupils, who as trailblazers will be thoroughly deserving of their success.”

Pupils celebrate their GCSE results at Debenham High School in 2016. Picture: GREGG BROWN

Pupils celebrate their GCSE results at Debenham High School in 2016. Picture: GREGG BROWN - Credit: Gregg Brown

Can you answer these GCSE exam questions?GCSE curriculum changes have been “far too rushed” and schools have not been given resources for their implementation, according to Nardeep Sharma, chief executive of the Thrive Partnership Academy Trust, which runs Colne Community School and College and Philip Morant School and College in the Colchester area.

“There is often a need to refresh and change the curriculum. However, it must be done in a managed and positively funded manner,” he said.

“GCSEs served an important purpose, as did coursework and controlled assessment. Sadly internal assessment has all but disappeared and not all young people will be able to show off their skills under the new exam arrangements.”

Asked if GCSEs should be scrapped, he said: “GCSEs serve a purpose but the Ebacc (English Baccalaureate, a school performance measure focusing on science, technology, engineering and mathematics) has narrowed the curriculum, especially for the arts and vocational education. These areas remain important to many young people.

“Testing should be scrapped at key stage one and two, and performance tables overhauled.

“Despite the challenges the Government has put in place and the numerous changes they have imposed on schools, we must continue to offer a rich broad and balanced curriculum that inspires and meet the needs of all young people.

“Government actions should not force children to feel they have ‘failed’ in any way; we should be creating every opportunity for young people to flourish and take up their roles in society in a positive and successful way.”

Pupils sitting an exam. Picture: NIALL CARSON/PA WIRE

Pupils sitting an exam. Picture: NIALL CARSON/PA WIRE - Credit: PA

What has changed in the English and maths reforms?

The toughened-up national curriculum reforms in English and maths have caused “chaos and confusion” and could lower pass rates among low-ability pupils, Suffolk teachers warn.

The reforms, driven by former education secretary Michael Gove to raise standards, were introduced in September 2015.

In English language, there was a greater emphasis on spelling, punctuation and grammar, as well as challenging texts. In English literature, pupils now study a 19th century novel, an entire Shakespeare play, poetry since 1789, and a British fiction or drama from 1914 onwards. There are also more unseen texts in exams.

Rob Lay, head of English at Holbrook Academy and an examiner, said: “Change was needed, to become more rigorous with fairer assessment, but the measures have gone too far. They are in danger of taking out some of the enjoyment and engagement.

“Students were geared up for a totally different set of exams. From years seven to nine, they were trained for coursework and controlled assessments; taking their time. Now it has become much more high-stakes. It’s not fair on students. You have only got that one shot. Students get very nervous about taking exams. There is a lot of pressure.”

He welcomed the change to teach whole Shakespeare plays, but added: “There is a greater emphasis on British values and tradition. For example, Mice and Men (John Steinbeck’s masterpiece on working-class America) was a really popular text but was taken off because of its American author. You lose a lot of that cultural identity and diversity. It really engaged pupils.

“Poetry is not as valued now. It emphasises much more on memory than analysis and the enjoyment of poetry. This is regurgitating information, rather than developing critical thinking.

“Getting rid of the foundation level was also nonsensical. Some of our really low-ability students can’t access the new material. In one of the English language papers, you have an unseen 19th century non-fiction test. They can’t understand some of the words, so I don’t blame them for becoming disenfranchised.”

He said the number grading system, which makes harder to achieve the top grade, “could push students with higher-stress levels into having more problems”.

“Students have shown resilience by adapting. They deserve to be rewarded,” he added.

League table of schools in 2016.

Meanwhile, in maths, pupils are now expected to learn formulas by heart, with a greater emphasis on proportion, ratio, non-calculator work, and ‘real-world problems’.

James Allen, head of maths at Woodbridge School, said: “At its core, it is harder. The major difference is in the questions. They are a bit more wordy and require more thinking and understanding to solve. It is going to benefit the very top students who are going on to A-level maths. They will enjoy the change and it will make that transition to A-level easier.

“It’s going to be a lot harder for those students who are trying to get a pass grade. They are expected to do a lot more on ratio and proportion. A lot more algebra has been moved down to foundation, and more on trigonometry and graphs. There are also fewer formulas provided. They will have to learn and memorise them, whereas before it would have just been written on the paper.

“So is it better or worse? It is different.”

What about Progress 8?

Progress 8 is designed to measure how well pupils progress between the end of primary and the end of secondary school. In time, this will be the main headline figure for schools. But the data this year will not be known until around October.

The score for each pupil is based on whether their actual GCSE scores are higher or lower than those achieved by pupils who had similar attainment at the end of primary school.

In P8 terms, a score of +1.0 means that pupils achieve one grade higher in each subject than pupils with similar prior attainment nationally.

The Progress 8 score is calculated across eight GCSE subjects, with more weight given in favour of academic subjects including English and maths.

It also includes three choices from the range of traditional English Baccalaureate subjects (sciences, computer science, geography, history and foreign languages); and three subjects which can either be from the EBacc set or any other approved arts, academic or vocational qualification.

Under the previous system, schools were judged on the proportion of students who gained at least five A*-C grades at GCSE, including English and maths, and on the amount of progress youngsters make in these two key subjects.

But the system was criticised for encouraging schools to focus heavily on pupils on the C/D grade borderline.

The Government has said the new indicator is designed to encourage schools to offer a broad and balanced curriculum at GCSE and reward schools for the teaching of all pupils.

Last summmer, the Progress 8 score for Suffolk was 0.02 16. This is above the national state-funded sector average of -0.03, but slightly below the East of England average of 0.03.

It meant that children in Suffolk were not only achieving their calculated potential between Year 6 and Year 11 – which would be a flat score of 0 – but are achieving better results than expected.