The ‘New’ 9-1 GCSE Levelling System – Is It Really Working?

The new GCSE levelling system centres away from the old alphabetical grading system, and introduces a new 1-9 levelling system with 9 being the top grade. Chief Regulator Glenys Stacey justifies the changes with “how grade standards are set is an extremely important issue, and we were very encouraged by the quantity and quality of the responses to our consultation” (OFQUAL, 2014).

Collie, P (2014, p.6) states that “the move to a numbered system of grades will cause confusion, at least in the short term, as parents and employers and have to realign their understanding”. It is undeniable that as the first bout of GCSE grades under the new system are released, employers, parents and students alike will question what the number truly represents in terms of attainment and success. In order to alleviate some of the confusion with the old alphabetical system, OFQUAL (2014) stated that the approach will mean “broadly the same proportion of students will achieve a grade 4 and above as currently achieve a grade C and above” and that similarly this relates to grade 7 and above being the equivalent to an A grade. Should this system be accurate, the transition between an alphabetical and numerical levelling system should be moderately smooth, with a grade 4 being the equivalent of a C grade and so on. Chief Regulator Glenys Stacey (2014, p. 2) however, stated that “we do need to caution against direct comparisons and over simplistic descriptions of the approach” and that “it is not right to say simply that a new grade 4 will equal a current grade C”. It is also stated in the same reference that “where grade 5 sits within the grading scale will place it above a current grade C”. Suddenly, there is a question illuminating in the minds of anyone reading, trying to fathom a deeper understanding of the system. Is a grade C the equivalent of a grade 4, or a grade 5? Employers, parents, students, educators and the general public are now questioning what the numbers truly mean. A simple cross over from letters to numbers becomes hazed, and suddenly what was a requirement for a GCSE English and Mathematics at grade C or above is thrown into question. Meyer, L (2011, p. 6) states that this confusion becomes a drawback causing “difficulties in employing young people with the right skills”.

Contrary to the levels of confusion that are displayed through the shift from an alphabetical to numerical system, Collie, P (2014, p. 7) has stated that “the change to grading structures coupled with removal of NC levels offers an opportunity to link assessment between KS3 and KS4 more closely”. Relating this to my teaching practice, KS3 classes in Music are assessed through a numerical system baring similarities to the new GCSE levelling system. Pupils are graded between 1-5 in KS3, with 1 being deemed a ‘novice’ and 5 an ‘expert’. The decision to implement only numbers 1-5, not 1-9, is due to the level of work that is required for a level 9, and this level is introduced at KS4. The affect of this can be seen with Year 9 GCSE particularly, as the shift between KS3 numbers to KS4 meant they were already aware of their current attainment and were more consciously aware of what they need to do to move up in levels. Parents also begin to understand more deeply the GCSE levelling system, with some parents on progress review meetings commenting “this is very similar to last year”. As a result, there is less confusion in both pupils and their parents, and allows for target setting to be a much smoother transition. Collie, P (2017, p. 9) also supports the notion that “good progress can be tracked and intervention strategies can be introduced from Year 7” giving teachers opportunity to “re-visit and refine level criteria” in KS3.

Meyer, L (2011, p. 6) states that “the GCSE certificates achievement at age sixteen and therefore ranks individuals, enabling employers and higher education providers to use GCSE grades as selection criteria”. She states that the new levelling system ensures a more specific level of attainment per number and will give a more in-depth indication of general ability which can “signal the subjects in which a pupil shows a particular strength or weakness as a marker for the next stage”. This undeniably does not remove the subject away from the confusion that it will present to employers initially, as the hazed grade boundaries will still pose an issue for those who have not undertaken significant enough research on the matter. It does, however, provide employers with a more complex and in-depth descriptor of the attainment of a potential candidate.

The issue surrounding GCSEs, regardless of numerical or alphabetical levelling system, is the pressure this puts on to the pupils. “When test scores become the goal of the teaching process, they both lose their value as indicators of educational status and distort the educational process in undesirable ways” (Campbell, 1976). The importance of the new GCSE levelling system must be adhered to, however, the overwhelming fear that the numbers within the system become the foreground of everything a teacher does cannot be dismissed. The Government are reforming GCSEs, which pose both positive and negative aspects to all. The concept of change is something that is never a smooth process regarding anything, not just education. There is a paramount importance regarding becoming ‘in the know’ about the GCSE reforms, for employers, parents, educators and students. But alongside this importance, one must ensure that numbers do not become the focus of the entire education system. There are far more goals within the educational system than just the attainment of a specific number. To lose sight of that in lieu with the new levelling system would be a travesty.



Collie, P. (2014) New GCSEs and School Accountability: Feedback from Secondary Teachers. [online] Available at: [Accessed: 16/04/2017] Pp. 6, 7

Meyer, L. (2011) Center for Education Research and Policy: The Value of GCSEs. [online] Available at: [Accessed 16/04/2017] Pp. 6, 7, 8, 9.

OFQUAL (2014) GCSEs (9-1) and Guidance. [online] Available at: [Accessed 16/04/2017] Pp. 20-23



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