GCSE Grading Goes Ga-Ga.

Ofqual has been doing its best to communicate the meaning of new GCSE grades to people.   Here’s their video:

It’s amusing to think there might be hints lurking in the relative heights of the paper piles. (There won’t be.).  There is also this handy ready reckoner for the conversion:

Screen Shot 2017-03-28 at 23.52.37

The problem has been with that dotted line in the middle. Today Justine Greening wrote this letter in which she explains that she wanted to give everyone more certainty about the value of the new GCSE Grade 4.  Whereas previously – outrageously – Nicky Morgan had decreed that only Grades 5-9 would be regarded as ‘Good GCSEs’, Grade 4 will now be considered a Pass.  Hooray.  I’ve been furious about this for ages; here’s a step in the right direction. Only Grades 1-3 to restore to any kind of meaningful status and we’ll be done.  Not only does the C=4 keep its benchmarking logic, matching the table above, this move will save millions of pounds of exam entry fees for students with Grade 4s who now will not need to resit in Year 12 in overburdened FE colleges and Sixth Forms across the land.  I was happy. For a minute.

Out of the jaws of victory, the SoS has snatched defeat.  She goes on to say that Grade 4 will be a Standard Pass and Grade 5 a Strong Pass. What the..??? What??  All of a sudden we’ve introduced value descriptors to go with the grades.  Why?  WHY?? What the hell are you doing???? This was my response:

A veritable twitter hit.  I’ve had various suggestions to embellish the list – Heroic Fail being a favourite. It’s just so ludicrous. If you create a gradient from Standard to Strong to capture Grade 4 to Grade 5, you’ve not left much room for subtlety in what follows.  This is a STEEP gradient.  This is The Thick of It self-parody territory.  The scale runs from utterly calamitous to totally fabulous – or something.

So, I was partly appalled by the language but, much much more than that, it’s the intent behind it.  Part of the tortured rhetoric of school improvement is this need to resolve our need to drive standards higher whilst simultaneously fixing them to stop grade inflation – as I tried to capture in this post and this image only this weekend.

Screen Shot 2017-03-26 at 11.19.09

What we need is to create a system where achievements at all levels are given value for what they are – that’s the way forward.  As with Piano Grades, you don’t tell a student that their Grade 3 is a bit rubbish; it’s the Grade 5s that really matter. No – you just accept it for what it is: a Grade 3.  People know what it means.  It’s better than 2, not as good as 4; it is what is.  Grade 3.  Understanding of the scale comes through familiarity and context.  In a beginners class, Grade 3 is brilliant.

Of course, as Laura McInerney from SchoolsWeek points out here, it is entirely possible to report on all grades that students achieve for school accountability.  It’s entirely unnecessary to predetermine which grades count more than others.  We might be interested in how many 7-9s are awarded or 6-8s (given the randomness of 9s). Telling us that 5s are ‘Strong’ relative to  4s being ‘Standard’ is unnecessary and unhelpful.  Go figure – 5 is higher than 4.

But the government  seems determined that we have to separate everyone into camps; to keep people in their place.  Schools, teachers, students – have to be good or bad. It’s the crude reductionism of it all that is so exasperating. Hence this follow up tweet:

Of course we all know that exam grades are referenced against the cohort; they’re not absolute measures – but when it is not technically possible for everyone to get a grade 4 and above, why is it necessary to disparage those that fill in the lower reaches of the bell curve?  Imagine if we no longer accepted that height could work as a measure in it’s own right.  Instead of growing from 5’4″ to 5’5″ you might find you’ve crossed a threshold from Rather Short to Standard Height.  Or at another point on the scale, from Standard Height to Quite Tall.  Or something stupid like that.

The Standard/Strong 4/5 boundary is no less ridiculous.  Remember that grading itself introduces very artificial cliff edges.  In any given subject, it will literally be the arbitrariness of which questions get weighted with more marks than others that determines whether a student falls one side or the other of that cliff-edge boundary.  For reasons that are not about any notion of absolute standards or depths of understanding of the subject,  Student A might now have a Standard Pass whereas Student B will have a Strong Pass.   If we reported their actual marks – say 45/80 and 46/80 it would be ludicrous to label them further.  They’re basically exactly the same within any sensible understanding of the margins of error.  Strong Pass. Standard Pass.  For God’s sake.

Hey-ho. The Ga-ga show continues.   I will now increase the temperature of some water from Rather Cold to Piping Hot in order to make some tea.




  1. […] Today Justine Greening wrote this letter in which she explains that she wanted to give everyone more certainty about the value of the new GCSE Grade 4.  Whereas previously – outrageously – Nicky Morgan had decreed that only Grades 5-9 would be regarded as ‘Good GCSEs’, Grade 4 will now be considered a Pass.  Hooray.  I’ve … Continue reading →https://teacherhead.com/2017/03/28/gcse-grading-goes-ga-ga/ […]


  2. Good piece on poorly thought-through policy. Your analogy with Music grades is not really comparing like-with-like, Grade 3 is not the assessment level it is the standard of exam. Assessment is Fail/ Pass/ Merit /Distinction , moving through the grades 1-8 is akin to progressing from KS2SATS to A-level


    • Yes, sorry; I wasn’t deliberately trying to confuse the two ideas – here, I was using music grades simply to highlight the way we can give value or not give value to any outcomes. The point is that, given that we have one set of grades for all students taking GCSEs and the bell curve grading is enforced, it was unnecessary and unhelpful to label them at all. A Grade 1 GCSE does not need to be given a pejorative descriptor. Another key difference is that in theory everyone any who sits Grade 1 in music could pass it because, as you say, it is a well-moderated standard. That’s not the same with GCSEs; at least 30% of students must get those lower grades how ever hard they try. So – yes, I’ve cut corners with that analogy but was looking to make a different point.


  3. 45/80 would mean a lot more to most people in the real world, surely?
    That’s if you really want to discriminate that far. I’m old enough to have passed my O Levels with nothing more than a Pass or Fail. The teachers got the exact marks so they could check for obvious problems.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Have just tried to brief staff on the brave new world we are entering. What chance do we have when those at the centre are making it up as they go?

    Liked by 1 person

  5. In the end this is a problem with not having a numerical grade boundary that matches the C/D boundary. That was always going to cause chaos because of the importance of that boundary (so for example, nurses and teachers have to have Cs in various combinations of English, maths and science, these are needed for various university matriculations, a slack handful is usually the difference between Level 2 and Level 3 programmes at sixth form and FE colleges, and more fundamentally the man on the Clapham omnibus considers C a pass and D a fail). Trying to make 5 a pass was always doomed by the inevitable big increase in the ‘wrong’ section of the bell curve; making 4 a pass was always doomed by the political need not to be seen to be dumbing down/giving prizes for all; trying to get rid of the notion of pass/fail has the same political problem. Whoever chose to nudge the numbers away from the old grade boundaries was guilty of wishful thinking – as always, decisions made in education without wide and open enough consultation end up coming apart at the seams at the implementation stage.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. The stress on students at the moment is simply wrong. I spend a lot of my time trying to reassure students and SLT. Who is thinking about the impact of this on students mental health? And mine and my team. Then I hear the banality of some such as Are you rising to the challenge? Aaagh.

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s