The new GCSE grades in action

Jo-Anne Baird says the new GCSE grades raise a range of issues, including comparability with previous results and their use by employers and the education system.

Students checking exam results tableOfqual has announced the new grading scheme for GCSEs. Instead of the current system, with eight grades from A* to G, there will now be nine. The additional grade will be at the top end: a kind of A**. The Secretary of State for Education, Michael Gove, has consistently said that the reforms to examinations will raise standards, and the new grading system is part of this push. As the aspiration is for the exams to be harder, they should allow for more discrimination between the very brightest students. Hence the plan for an extra grade at the top end.

The new grades will also be expressed as numbers rather than letters. At first glance, this looks like a superficial alteration, but it is all about ringing the changes. That is important in itself, as teachers, students, employers, higher education admissions tutors and the wider public need to understand that the new system will be a break from the past. 

But whilst these changes are important in their own right for the message they send, there will need to be other important communication activities in place if the new exams are to succeed when they are first launched. Stakeholders need to know what the grades mean in practice. This means that they need to understand not only the curricula, but the likely standards that will be required for particular grades. Further, they need to know how the new results will be translated into the educational system more broadly, including selection for educational progress and, crucially too, for league tables. Put simply, people are going to need to know what will be required to get a grade C in today’s money, and what will be required to get an A**.

A lack of preparation in any part of the system can lead to disaster – this we know from our own experiences with examination reforms. To name a few, the AS levels in 2001; the A-levels in 2002; and the key stage test in a number of years, most notably in 2008, were all a source of national embarrassment. We need to learn the lessons of exam reform implementation from the problems we have had before, and from those in other countries.

Examinations are an important currency in our society, and people need to know what to expect. In New Zealand in 2003, the results of the new examinations came as a complete surprise to everyone. Results in some subjects were up and in others they were down. Some might argue that the results are the examiners’ call, right? But how can it be that they are so different between two consecutive years? The education system needs some preparation and warning about how to interpret the results which exam systems produce. If they are going to be harder examinations, we need to anticipate by how much the results are likely to change. That way, we know what expectations to have of students who are applying for jobs or education places.

An easy prediction is that the 16-year-old cohort in England in 2017 will not be less bright than that of 2016. It is likely to be about the same. Nor will there be a dramatic change in the cohort of teachers or in the schools available. But the curricula and the examinations will change, and there may be a policy to have fewer top grades.

Without clarity in the expectations, it will be impossible for the exam boards to ensure that they all set the same standards, and this alone could bring the system into disrepute. Preparatory work can be carried out. The new expectations should be communicated to all of those involved so that they know what to teach, at what level to teach it, and how many students they can select with certain grades for sixth form and FE places.

Fundamentally, people need to know what the grades mean in terms of what students are likely to be able to do, and where they stand in relation to the cohort. This requires an implementation programme that plans, models, and, most importantly, communicates to all parts of the education system what it means to have a grade 7.

Jo-Anne Baird is Pearson Professor of educational assessment at the University of Oxford, and Director of the Oxford University Centre for Educational Attainment.

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