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The Muddy guide to the new GCSE grading (gulp)!

Thursday 24 August may or may not be a significant date on your calendar this year (I am in receipt of a very nervous 16-year-old, so it is for me)! Yup, it’s GCSE results day, and this year it comes with a twist. Farewell A* to G, hello 9 to 1. And no, it’s not the new 5:2, it’s the name for the new, numerical GCSE results. Confused? We all are; so thankfully, Beth Foster, Deputy Head and maths teacher at St Francis’ College Letchworth, helps us shed light on the 9 to 1.

St Francis’ College, Broadway, Letchworth

9 to 1 sounds like a new diet. Can you explain?

9 to 1 is the new grading scale for GCSE. 9 is now the highest grade and 1 is the lowest. It’ll be introduced over the following two years but this year is the first year for maths and English to be marked in this way.

Whose idea was this? It was the brainchild of Michael Gove, the former education secretary. He felt that GCSE needed reforming from the roots to the tips; he wanted the content to be changed, and in order to recognise that there were harder GCSEs coming through, particularly in maths and English, he wanted there to be no comparison between old and new. That’s why he introduced a numerical scale going from 9 to 1.

What happens next?

The decision to change the way the exams were graded was made five years ago but it’s only being implemented this year. This is the first cohort that has had the new GCSE in English and maths. Next year it will be followed by the other subjects: modern languages, humanities and all the stem subjects.

Playing fields at St Francis’ College

Has the maths syllabus changed?

Radically: beyond all recognition. The maths GCSE is now considerably harder than it was in the past and it’s caused a national outcry. The exam boards submitted papers to people around the country who had already passed the old GCSE to try them. The average score was 28%, so you can see how tough the new papers are.

I’ve heard the ‘R’ word bandied about. Are the new exams more rigorous?

Certainly the level of academic rigour expected of students has gone up by quite a substantial step. In maths, a lot of the A Level syllabus has come into the GCSE. In English, there’s a great deal more emphasis on texts such as Shakespeare and 19th Century work such as Charles Dickens. There’s unseen poetry now where students have to deal with a poem they haven’t prepared. 

How does the 9 to 1 make you feel?

There’s an underlying feeling of nervousness about how it’s all going to pan out. It’s been an anxious time. We’re blessed here because we have very able girls and they’ve taken it in their stride. But we’ll all feel a lot more settled when we’ve got some results.

Results day last year at St Francis’ College

Do you have any tips for parents and children?

Try to keep a measure of sanity. It’s important to realise that young people are as intelligent as they ever were. That hasn’t changed. They’re just being set a higher challenge.

So it’s the end of the A*?

Indeed. We’ve been given one peg: an A is now a 7. Levels 4 and 5 will both be the old C grade, with 4 being a pass and 5 a ‘good’ pass. With the new scale, above 7 (the old A grade), there will be 8 and 9. There is a real focus of discrimination amongst the most able.

Club culture at St Francis’ College

So will fewer students now get a 9 than used to get an A*?

This remains unknown. To be honest, we’re all a little bit in the dark. We’ll be in a much stronger position come 24th August when the first set of exam results come through and everyone’s nerves will be settled. They say that 20% of students who get above a 7 will be awarded a 9. So only a fifth of those top girls or top boys will get a 9. It’s supposed to be a qualification that’s quite hard to achieve.

Playing fields at St Francis’ College

What about the future?

I think it’ll put a lot of students off A Level maths. Maths A Level hasn’t got any harder, but the maths GCSE has become such a hurdle now and I think it might have long-term effects. One of the exemplar maths papers sent through by the exam board Edexcel had all six of our maths teachers sucking their pencils and saying, ‘How are our students supposed to tackle this?’

And for students who want to go to university?

For university, in addition to the A Level offers, you are required to have passed maths and English GCSE. At the moment, that’s at Grade C. But now there will be two Grade Cs: Level 4 is a pass and Level 5 is a good pass. But it’s not clear at the moment which one of those the universities are going to be asking for. Universities will look at the old ABCs and then they’ll be looking at the new 123s as they start coming in. They’re going to have to adjust and find a new framework to assess them.

Students at St Francis’ College

Are you feeling hopeful?

Common sense will have to prevail. We can’t disadvantage a whole generation of students just because of some change by a politician who has since left his post. I’m hoping that the exam boards, who are ultimately commercial institutions will see they need to work closely with the teaching profession to make the new qualifications work. 

Work, rest and play

And finally, what can we do to balance exam stress and academic pressures on our children, and the whole family?

With the results, comparisons with siblings and cousins should be kept to a minimum. And I think that it’s never been more important for students – and families generally – to make time for extra-curricular activities. It’s absolutely essential. We’ve found a way of re-structuring our school day so that we can make it more efficient and free up some time for girls to do orchestra, Duke of Edinburgh and the many clubs that are on offer. It’s important for all of us to make time to do things outside school and work to find ourselves as people.

The next open mornings at St Francis are: Sat 7 and Fri 13 October. Read the Muddy Review of St Francis’ College.

St Francis’ College, Letchworth  

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