As teenagers wait for GCSE results, headteachers have raised concerns that the new grading system sends a “demoralising message” to students who are likely to score lower results in their exams.
A “better way” needs to be found of recognising the achievement of teenagers who score lower than a 4 – equivalent to a C under the old system – in the new, tougher, GCSE courses, school leaders said.
The comments come as 16-year-olds across England, Wales and Northern Ireland receive their GCSE results.
Last year, one in five (20%) UK GCSE entries scored at least an A – or a 7 under the new system – while two thirds (66.3%) scored at least C – equivalent to a 4 under the new system.
Under the biggest shake-up of exams in England for a generation, GCSEs have been toughened up, and traditional A*-G grades scrapped and replaced with a 9-1 system, with 9 the highest grade.
According to research by Cambridge Assessment, as few as 200 students could score a clean sweep of 9s in all of their GCSEs this year.
Ahead of results day, the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) said it had concerns about pupils performing at the lower end of the grading scale.
“The Government’s intention is that the new system provides greater differentiation between grades,” Malcolm Trobe, ASCL deputy general secretary said.
“For example, it replaces A* and A with three grades, 7, 8 and 9.
“Our concern, however, is over those pupils at the other end of the scale who are taking exams which are harder than their predecessors and who have been told by the Government that a grade 4 is a ‘standard pass’ and a grade 5 is a ‘strong pass’.
“That is a very demoralising message to those who achieve grades 1, 2 and 3, and the new system does not work very well for them at all.
“These young people have completed demanding programmes of study and we need to find a better way to credit their achievements.”
There have been suggestions in recent weeks that grade boundaries could be lower this year for new GCSEs compared with the old system.
Last year, when grades were awarded for the first time for new maths GCSE, students sitting the higher tier maths course – which is aimed at higher-achieving pupils – needed to score at least 18% on average to secure a grade 4, while on average, 52% was needed for a 7, and 79% for a grade 9.
Exams regulator Ofqual has said it uses statistical processes to ensure that results are comparable year-on-year, and to ensure that students who are the first to take the new-style qualifications are not disadvantaged in any way.
ASCL said it is right that pupils should not be disadvantaged because they are “the first to take a set of new and more difficult examinations”.
The union also suggested that if grade boundaries need to be set very low on tiered GCSEs – such as maths – this is a sign that papers were so difficult that pupils were unable to answer many of the questions – which could increase stress and anxiety levels.
Mr Trobe said: “We are also concerned that if grade boundaries have to be set very low, this indicates that the exam is so difficult that many candidates have been unable to answer a significant proportion of the paper.
“This inevitably increases stress and anxiety and leaves them feeling that they have done poorly.
“It is right that exam papers should be challenging but they should not be excessively difficult and exams should be designed with this in mind.”
Education Secretary Damian Hinds echoed Ofqual’s assurances that pupils who had taken the tougher new exams would not be at a “disadvantage”.
Writing in the Daily Telegraph, he said: “To make sure that pupils who take the new GCSEs are not at a disadvantage when compared to those who went before, the independent qualifications regulator Ofqual uses a statistical method called ‘comparable outcomes’.
“This ensures that broadly the same proportion of pupils will pass, and reach the equivalent of an A grade as in previous years, assuming the ability profile of the pupils is the same.
“But there is greater differentiation for higher-achieving pupils, with more grades above the ‘standard pass’ level of grade four. This means not as many pupils will get the very highest grade (nine) as previously got an A*.”
He also said the results would be “fair to the young people who worked hard for their exams”, and added that the reform had come in response to employers complaining that the old GCSEs did not provide young people with the skills they needed.
Grades for new-style English and maths GCSEs were awarded for the first time last summer.
This year, 20 subjects will be awarded grades under the new system – with a 7 broadly equivalent to an A, and a 4 broadly equivalent to a C.
Professor Alan Smithers, director of the Centre for Education and Employment Research at the University of Buckingham, predicted that overall pass-rates could drop slightly this year.
“I think the percentages getting the equivalent of an A and the equivalent of a C under the old regime are likely to go down a bit.”
Sally Collier, Ofqual chief regulator, said: “Today’s results are the second set for reformed GCSEs and the majority of awards this summer are for new 9 to 1 qualifications. Many years in the making, these new GCSEs are more challenging and will better prepare students for further study or employment.
“Students picking up their results today can be confident they have achieved the grades their performance deserves. As in previous years, we have used the tried and tested principle of comparable outcomes to ensure standards are maintained. Senior examiners have reviewed papers to make sure the quality of work is appropriate to the grades awarded.
“We know schools and students have been working hard to prepare for this year’s exams, and today’s results reflect that considerable effort. They should be congratulated on their achievements.”
A Department for Education spokesman said: “We have raised standards throughout the education system so that all young people are better prepared for the next stage of their education and the workplace.
“However, the point of any grading system is to distinguish between different levels of attainment, and our new 9 to 1 system has been designed specifically to provide greater clarity for employers identifying pupils who have taken the new, more rigorous GCSEs.”