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GCSE grades to change to help bosses select brightest pupils

Under the shake-up GCSEs in England will adopt the new numerical system

A new numbered grading system for GCSEs which will make it easier for universities and employers to select high-flying pupils is revealed in a long-awaited exams shake-up to be announced today.

The current A* to G grade pass system, which covers eight grades, is to be replaced by a one to nine grading system - with exams regulator Ofqual saying the change will allow “greater differentiation” at the top end. Nine will be the top grade.

The change comes in the wake of up to 40 per cent of pupils in some exams, notably in science, achieving top grade A* or A grade passes, making it difficult for universities to single out the brightest students for popular courses.

The change is one of a number of reforms to GCSEs – which represent the biggest changes to the examination since it was first introduced in the mid 1980’s. “You don’t get many opportunities to radically reform qualifications and make them the best they can possibly be,” said Glenys Stacey, Ofqual’s chief regulator.

Under the shake-up all GCSEs in England will adopt the new numerical system, although Wales and Northern Ireland are expected to stick with traditional GCSE grades. English Language, English Literature and maths will be the first exams to adopt the new structure. It will be taught in class for the first time in September 2015 and first examined in 2017.

Other subjects, including the rest of those included in Education Secretary Michael Gove’s English Baccalaureate – science, history, geography and major foreign languages – will come on stream a year later. This will mean pupils having a mixture of numerical and lettered grades in the interim.

In addition, all exams will take place and marked externally at the end of the two-year course, except in obvious cases where assessment during the course is needed, such as experiments in science and fieldwork in geography. Students will only be able to sit the exams in the summer, except in the case of English language and maths where those aged 16 at the start of the school year will be allowed to sit them in November.  This will give them an early shot at key qualifications.

Ofqual is also scrapping most two-tiered papers, where easier papers are devised for the less able students.

Reaction from the profession was mixed with Christine Blower, general secretary of the National Union of Teachers, welcoming the fact that Ofqual had asserted GCSEs should remain “a respected qualification” rather than bow to Mr Gove’s “attempts to discredit them and replace them with English Baccalaureate certificates” which were “unjustified and rightly failed to pass the test”. However, she added: “The one-size-fits-all model of having a single three-hour exam at the end of a course is built on a faulty premise that by definition all other approaches represent lower standards.

“We do not accept this. Tiering, resit opportunities, modules and coursework all have their role to play in getting the very best out of all learners.”

Malcolm Trobe, deputy general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, added: “There is much to welcome in today’s announcement... We have always agreed that GCSEs can be improved to better prepare students to meet the needs of the world we live in today.”

Mrs Stacey said the second tier of new GCSEs would include subjects like art, design, drama and music as well as those which form the English Baccalaureate. Subsequently, a test of what constitutes a GCSE would be applied to other subjects which could see others disappear.

She added that she believed there was “a great deal of consensus” politically over GCSEs which was “really important” in ensuring the changes survived a change of government.