From A* to 9: Understanding the new GCSE grading system

April 19, 2017 by Minerva Tutors,

The new GCSE grading system is being phased in over the next few years. It’s already caused concern and confusion among parents, teachers and students, so we are giving you the lowdown on exactly how the new system works.


New GCSEs in English literature, English language and maths will be taken this summer by current Year 11 students, and graded 9-1, but what else do you need to know?


  • Exams regulator Ofqual has said that a similar proportion of students currently getting a C or above will be getting a four and above in the new GCSE grading system, and the first batch of students taking the new GCSEs will not be disadvantaged.


  • For school performance tables, the government will publish ‘standard passes’ (grade four and above) as well as ‘strong passes’ (at grade five and above).


  • Ofqual have warned against direct and ‘overly simplistic’ comparisons to the old grading system, but have suggested a six, five or four will be roughly equivalent to an old B or C.


  • A nine, eight or seven will be equivalent to an A* or A – but only around the top 20% of these – the most exceptional exam performances – will be awarded a nine.


  • A three will be approximately the same as a D, and a one or two will cover grades E, F and G. There will still be a ‘U’ for ungraded.


  • By 2020, every GCSE subject will be on the new grading system, with most coming into effect in 2018 and 2019. For a full breakdown of syllabus changes to core subjects, and when these GCSE changes will come into play for each subject, check out Minerva’s GCSE Knowledge Base.


  • It means that students taking GCSEs between this summer and 2019 will end up with a mix of letters and numbers for their final grades.


  • Eventually, all GCSEs in England will be graded 9-1, while all GCSEs in Wales will remain on the A*-G system, and students in Northern Ireland could end up with a mix of letters and numbers, depending on the exam boards they are using. Scotland will retain its current system of Nationals and Highers.


You could be forgiven for being confused.

The new grading system is a result of Michael Gove’s tenure as secretary of education, and part of his wider drive to tackle grade inflation by making GCSEs and A Levels more rigorous and challenging. This means more exams and less coursework/controlled assessment, all exams taken at the end of two year courses, not with modules along the way, and greater emphasis on numeracy, literacy and problem-solving across the board. This applies to every exam board, though each has a certain amount of discretion over how they implement the changes.

All this was done while cutting education funding (which has continued under subsequent education secretaries Nicky Morgan and Justine Greening), increasing the burden of pressure and schools and teachers.

The underlying idea behind the changes is to better equip young people leaving schools with the skills required for employment or further education. However, whether this will be the actual outcome, or if it will simply mean lower grades all round (which Ofqual has suggested will not be the case) remains to be seen.


Ofqual’s 2014 consultation on the new grading system can be found here, while a more complete breakdown of the new GCSEs is on Minerva’s Knowledge Base. The Department for Education has also published a timeline of GCSE and A Level changes over the coming years, which you can see here.

Whether you’re looking for a nine in maths or English language/literature, or an A* in something else, we can provide expert GCSE and A Level tutors for any subject you need. Just contact the Temple of Minerva at, or give us a call on 0208 819 3276.

By David Bard


David is a Minerva Pro Tutor who specialises in humanities subjects at A Level and is a trained expert in the 7 + and 11 + exams. Outside of tutoring, David writes blogs about everything that’s trending in education.

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