The results for the first new style 9-1 GCSEs are now in for Mathematics and English Language. It was widely reported that they were considerably more challenging than their predecessor qualifications; there were numerous problems with inaccurate textbooks and concerns about the latest cohort of students being disadvantaged compared to previous GCSE cohorts, which have faced easier exams.

In response, Ofqual has repeatedly emphasised that the latest GCSE cohort will not lose out and that they will ensure that students who might previously have got a C will still be able to obtain a 4 (the equivalent grade in the new 9-1 qualifications, which counts as a ‘standard pass’). Of course, ensuring that students who would have got a C grade in previous qualifications get a grade 4 in the new, more challenging, qualifications is not as straightforward as it might seem. After all, these students have not sat the previous qualifications and the exams they have sat are considerably more challenging. It is scarcely comparing like with like. What if the entire cohort does much worse than expected?

Well, we now know the answer. The cohort did do comparatively badly, as might be expected; the qualifications have changed but the education system has remained largely the same. Nonetheless, the exam board stayed true to their promise that the current cohort would not be at a disadvantage. They have done this by lowering the grade boundaries required to achieve a ‘pass’ (grade C or its new equivalent, a grade 4). However, the current cohort clearly didn’t do particularly well, as the grade boundaries for a pass are have been made pitifully low. Let’s take a look at mathematics (Higher tier):


Grade C boundary (2016): 70/200 (35%)

Grade 4 boundary (2017): 41/240 (17%)


Grade C boundary (2016): 68/200 (34%)

Grade 4 boundary (2017): 46/240 (19%)


Grade C boundary (2016): 61/200 (31%)

Grade 4 boundary (2017): 46/300 (15%)

It might legitimately be thought that the grade boundaries for a pass in 2016 were already rather low at around a third of the marks. However, in an effort to maintain the same proportion of passes for the latest cohort of GCSE students the grade boundaries have been slashed practically in half. This surely seems peculiar; for each exam board, students can be deemed to have ‘passed’ mathematics by scoring less than a fifth of the available marks. In English Language the drop has been not quite so pronounced but it has still gone from around 50-55% in 2016 to around 40% this year.

Despite what the exam boards (or, indeed, the government) might say about this year’s students not being treated unfairly, they are surely wrong. It’s not so much that the students have been denied grades they might previously have attained, but actually the whole point of introducing more challenging exams has been undermined and with it a small degree of the respect that employers or further education institutions might have for the results. If we want to raise the bar to match other high achieving countries around the world (especially in the Far East), itself a laudable goal, then we should be prepared to hold students to account to those new standards. Instead, what has happened is that we have told our students that they’ve passed when this is clearly not the case. How will they fare when they enter the workplace or further education with such a scant grasp of the core subjects? And what does Ofqual and the government do next year, assuming that they cannot miraculously endow the next cohort of GCSE students with a far greater grasp of the core subjects, alongside the next tranche of reformed qualifications?

The practice of dropping the grade boundaries to allow as many students to pass as the government of the day might like has surely reached a ridiculous level. It’s hard to see how it will get any better in the next few years. The greatest tragedy is that it does a great disservice to the students who are being deceived into thinking they have passed when they have, in fact, done no such thing. The rest of society will not take too long to see through the deception.


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