Frequently asked questions​ about GCSE 9-1 awarding​, with answers about modular and linear qualifications, grade descriptors and tiered qualifications.

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  • to give teachers more information about students abilities, attainment and progression
  • to reward outstanding achievement
  • to help distinguish between new and old specifications.
  • GCSE English Language
  • GCSE English Literature
  • GCSE Mathematics

Grade 4 is a 'standard pass' and broadly speaking, equates to a C, however the DfE have placed a 'strong pass' at a grade 5 and above. 

The introduction of Grade 9 in the new GCSEs aims to allow greater differentiation between the most able candidates.

Ofqual have confirmed that in the first year, the Grade 9 will be set using a formula that will see approximately 20% of all GCSE entries that achieve Grade 7 or above across all subjects achieving a Grade 9.

This is a change from the approach previously stated, which would award a Grade 9 to 20% of candidates achieving Grade 7 or above in each subject). The previous approach may have been unfair for subjects with a high ability cohort as more students compete for the top grade than in a subject with a typically less able cohort.  

All awarding organisations will apply a formula to the results of each reformed GCSE specification in the first year, in order to calculate the correct proportion of Grade 9 outcomes for that cohort.

This approach means different subjects will see different proportions of Grade 9s awarded, because the ability of the cohort needs to be taken into consideration.

The Grade 8 boundary will be set arithmetically, meaning it will be set midway between Grade 7 and Grade 9.

Ofqual has published more information about how the top grades will be awarded on their website.  

Attainment of a GCSE for individual students at any grade should be considered an achievement where a student is reaching their potential.

Broadly speaking, a C is equivalent to the new ‘4’ in reformed GCSE qualifications and Grade 4 will be the grade required for progression by most universities, FE providers and employers. This is - and will remain - the level that pupils must achieve in order not to be required to continue studying English and maths post 16.

The Department for Education (DfE) has confirmed that Grade 4 will be considered a 'standard pass' and Grade 5 a 'strong pass' for the purposes of performance tables. This is a change from the previous position, where Grade 5 was to be the headline performance table measure. 

You can read more about the DfE's position on the 'standard' and 'strong pass' here.

The new GCSE (9-1) qualifications are linear, rather than the current modular structure. Over the next few years, most of the modular qualifications will be phased out. 

Linear qualifications are designed so that candidates are assessed at the end of the course (usually two years for GCSE), after all of the teaching and learning for the subject has taken place.

To receive a result for a linear qualification, all of the marks achieved on different question papers are added together and the candidate receives a grade for the qualification. There is no need for a uniform mark scale - a single grade is issued to each candidate. 

Modular qualifications, on the other hand, are designed so that they are taught in ‘units’ throughout the course, with assessments taken at the end of each unit. Candidates receive a grade for each unit and are then able to ‘cash in’ for a qualification grade.

Because some question papers may be slightly easier or more difficult than others, a Uniform Mark Scale (UMS) is used for modular qualifications.

The move to linear will mean there is no need for UMS for reformed GCSE. 

Ofqual have published grade descriptors for Grade 8, Grade 5 and Grade 2. These descriptors aim to provide an overview of the skills, knowledge and understanding that is expected at the mid-point of those grades. Ofqual have made it clear that these will not be used in the awarding process. 

A small number of GCSE 9-1 qualifications will be tiered. These are:

  • Mathematics
  • Modern foreign languages
  • Biology 
  • Chemistry
  • Physics
  • Combined Science

Available grades for candidates entered on the Higher Tier will be 9-4, with an allowed Grade 3 for candidates who do not quite achieve Grade 4.

Available grades for candidates entered on the foundation Tier will be 5-1.  

We can understand why these organisations, such as subject associations are suggesting where boundaries might lie, but it is important to understand that these are entirely unofficial and there is no guarantee how accurate they will prove to be.

We do appreciate the valuable support that other organisations provide to our centres, especially during this critical and uncertain reform phase. However, we would counsel significant caution when using ‘grade boundaries’ created off the back of mock assessments.

Our live papers (and our specimen papers and secure mock papers) go through a rigorous ten-step process to ensure their reliability and validity. Our examiners go through a robust standardisation process and we have significant processes in place to ensure the quality and consistency of our marking.

Ultimately, the 2017 grade boundaries will be dependent on a number of factors we cannot predict until the exams have been sat. No formative assessment can really replicate the high-stakes examination experience, nor will any data collected from mocks truly replicate the entire cohort.

See the Ofqual blog

Our winter mock analysis help provide a flavour of how the cohort might perform , but this is not nearly precise enough to be used to set boundaries that could be used with any confidence as predictors for the summer.