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Navigating the Exam System: 1. The Changes to GCSEs

Updated: Jan 23

Choosing subjects at the age of fourteen (or in some cases, thirteen) is hard - for parents as well as children.

Your child may be emotional as they reach this important milestone in their life. No doubt, they are worried about the shake-up in friendship groups as each person chooses different subjects. 

You have emotions too. You might be wondering why your child does not share your love of geography. Or, you may be concerned that choosing the ‘wrong’ subject now, will close important doors later in life. How do you help if your child wants to be a footballer when they grow-up? Even worse, a YouTuber?

Schools further complicate the situation. They are not only thinking of your child. The teaching staff available, the timetable and how they can perform well on league tables all play a role in the advice and guidance they give. This is not out of selfishness. They will want to do the best for all children based on the resources available. They do not want any child to leave feeling like they have failed.

To make matters even worse, the exam system is confusing. There are different exam boards, different tiers and even different types of Science. It is different from the exam system you went through. You may recognise it, but it has changed a lot.

You probably feel a little overwhelmed.

Image of a confused person surrounded by school stationary

As a teacher of fifteen years, a school leader and dad, I can help you to navigate the system. I can’t give you any answers, but I can help make things clearer.

Exams and qualifications are a huge part of schooling - therefore, to do it justice, I will be covering the topic in detail, but over a number of blog posts. 

In this blog, we are going to be focussing on GCSEs. Specifically, the changes made in recent years. The other blogs in this series are:

The Changes - Letters to Numbers

When he was in charge of Education, Michael Gove (and his advisor Dominic Cummings) made sweeping changes to the school system which are still being felt today. One of the changes which affects you as a parent, are the changes made to GCSEs.

The most obvious change was to move from ‘letter’ grades to ‘number’ grades. Grade 1 is the lowest (broadly equivalent to a ‘G’ grade) and Grade 9 is the highest (broadly equivalent to above an A*). Confusingly, the letter U is still used for a failure to get enough marks to pass - an ‘unclassified’ grade. You can see the new vs old system in this diagram produced by Ofqual.

Comparison table between old GCSE grades and new GCSE grades

The idea behind this change was to create a grade above the old ‘A*’. It was felt too many students were getting the top grade, therefore, diluting its value. I will share my thoughts on this in later blogs.

One unintended consequence (I assume - the decision was made very late in the day) was to also split the old ‘pass’ grade of a ‘C’ into two - a ‘standard pass’ (4) and a ‘strong pass’ (5). This matters. Sixth Form colleges, employers, universities and league tables all now need to decide which one to class as a pass.

The Changes - The importance of the final exam

In addition to the grade changes, the format of many exams changed too. Previously, lots of subjects had elements of ‘coursework’ - longer, essay based work, marked by the class teacher and then checked by the exam boards. This was deemed too easy as students (for many reasons) often did better in coursework elements than in the formal exam. With the exception of some arts subjects, this has now been stopped. 

In the old system, some subjects (particularly Maths, English and Science), exams were also broken down into ‘modules’ - meaning students could sit the exam in chunks and ‘bank’ any grade achieved. In some cases, students could re-sit. This meant there was less pressure on the final exam taken at the end of Y11 (age 16). 

Now, all of the subject content is assessed in a series of high-stakes exams in the summer of Y11.

The Changes - Content

The final change was around the amount of content covered in each subject. I dispute that this made the exams harder - I actually think some of the exam questions became easier.  However, it does mean students have to learn and remember more information in the same two year time period. For example, in the subject I teach most, history, in the old system we studied:

  • The Vietnam War (course work)

  • The changes in British Society 1950-1980 (exam in Y11)

  • International Relations in the Cold War Period (exam in Y11)

  • The Rise of Hitler (exam in Y11)

Now, we study:

  • Crime and Punishment through time (exam in Y11)

  • Whitechapel Case-study (exam in Y11)

  • International Relations in the Cold War (exam in Y11)

  • Britain under Elizabeth I (exam in Y11)

  • The Rise of Hitler (exam in Y11)

This means there is more pressure to cover content in lessons, usually more homework and more exams to sit at the end of Y11. It is now not unusual to be sitting almost thirty exams.

What this all means

In summary, your child will be sitting a lot of exams, will have to remember a lot of information and will not be able to easily re-sit. 

You might be wondering why you were not informed about these changes? Why was this not in the news? 

Firstly, the changes happened in two stages. English and Maths changed in 2016 - other subjects changed the following year. This dampened media interest in the story. As did the Grenfell Tower tragedy which occurred during the exam period when the first changes occurred. Another complication was the snap-election called by Teresa May in May, just as the exams began. This not only dominated the news cycle, but also meant civil servants were restricted by the purdah rules around election time.

In my next blog, I will be exploring some common questions. For example:  how many subjects should my child choose? Do certain subjects matter more? What is the difference between foundation and higher tier? 

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