What do the GCSE 1-9 grades mean and how do they compare with A*-G system?
Is a 4 a pass or do you need a 5? Is a 1 the top score or a 9? All your GCSE grading questions explained
A new system for grading all GCSEs subjects was rolled out across England in 2020, meaning that instead of being awarded a grade between A* and G, students now receive a grade from 1 to 9, with 9 being the top grade and 1 being the lowest.
Obviously, if you're used to thinking that A and A* are best (the first letters of the alphabet) and G worst, then it might seem a bit topsy-turvy that 1 (the first number on a scale) is worst and 9 is best.
The best – and easiest – way to think about the current GSCE grading is: the higher the number, the higher the grade.
Here your at-a-glance guide to what the current GCSE grades mean, compared to the old A* to G grades
The newer numerical system does not map exactly onto the old alphabetical system but there are some comparable points between the old and new grades, as you can see from our chart (above) and fuller explanation (below)...
Grade 9 – this is higher than the old A* grading
More like this
Grade 8 – this sits between A* and A – so a lower A* or a high A
Grade 7 – this is comparable to a middle to bottom grade A
Grade 6 - this is a high to middle B
Grade 5 – this is being called a Strong Pass at GCSE and is placed between a low B and a high C
Grade 4 – this is also a pass at GCSE, described as a Standard Pass, and is equivalent to the bottom of grade C
Grade 3 – straddles D and a high E
Grade 2 – straddles low E and high F
Grade 1 – equivalent to the bottom of grade G
U is still around for the unlovely "ungraded".
So will schools, sixth form colleges and apprenticeships want 4s or 5s in Maths and English?
The Department for Education (DfE) recognises a grade 4 to be a Standard Pass, making it a similar achievement to the old grade C or above.
A Standard Pass is seen by the DfE as the minimum level that students must reach in English and Maths at GCSE.
If your child doesn't reach a grade 4 in English and/or Maths, they must continue studying these subjects as part of their post-16 education. This requirement does not apply to other subjects.
The DfE have advised colleges, universities and employers to accept a grade 4 if they previously set a grade C in a particular subject as their minimum entry/hiring requirement.
However, it's up to employers, universities and colleges to set their own GCSE requirements and some do require a grade 5 or above.
I’ve heard the new exams are harder than the old ones. Does that mean that students will get lower results compared to the old system?
Back in 2017, when the new 1-9 grades were implemented for Maths and English only, the DfE stated the new GCSEs "cover more challenging content" so that "students leave school better prepared for work or further study" and GCSE standards "match standards in high-performing education systems elsewhere in the world".
However, the DfE has also said that that this doesn't mean students will tend to get a lower grade with the 1-9 system than they might have done under the old system.
They say the 1-9 system is designed to "better differentiate between the highest performing students" – and that the English qualifications regulator Ofqual will ensure that "broadly the same proportion of students will get grades 1, 4 and 7 and above... as would have got G, C or A and above in the old system".
One change that is worth knowing about, though, if you're more familiar with the A* to G systems, is that GCSEs now are now "linear", rather than "modular". This basically means that there your grades are primarily based on the one set of exams at the end of at the end of Year 11, rather than also graded through coursework or practical assessments throughout Years 10 and 11.
How difficult is it to get a 9?
Very difficult. The DfE have confirmed that fewer students will receive a grade 9 than students who would have received an A* in the old system.
Can students appeal if they don’t get their expected grades?
As under the old system, a decision to appeal a GCSE grade should always be done in conjunction with your child's school — they’ll have clearer information about how close your child's results were to a grade boundary and can request that the exam board reviews the mark your child received.
What about Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland?
This is just an English initiative. Wales and Northern Ireland, they are keeping the old A* to G grading system (although Northern Ireland is adding in a new C* grade). In Scotland, students will continue to sit Nationals (N5), with the grading system A to D.
There’s certainly a lot to get your head around, if you're used to the old alphabetical system! Thankfully, there are no plans to change the grading system for A Levels — at least for the moment...
Illustration: Jordan Edmonds Moore
Emily is the Digital Content Producer at MadeForMums, working across the brand on everything from pushchairs and car seats to baby names and the latest product launches. She researches topics thoroughly to make sure our content is accurate and helpful for parents and loves bringing the details about latest parenting products and innovations to our audience.
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