GCSE grades explained: what is the 9 - 1 system?

Luke Mintz
GCSE students could face confusion this year, as the 9 - 1 grading scale arrives for even more subjects - Christopher Pledger

Teenagers across Britain are eagerly waiting for their GCSE results pour in on Thursday, August 22nd after months of revision and summer exams.

As of 2019, almost all GCSE results will use the new 9 - 1 grading scale which has replaced the old A*-G system, with 9 being the highest grade. The new system has been gradually phased in since 2017. 

If you need reminding about the new system, here's everything you need to know about the GCSE numerical grading scale if you're not sure what it means.

What is the numerical grading system and how does it affect me?

When it was first rolled out in 2017, the 9-1 grading system was only used in English Language, English Literature and Maths. 

In 2018, its use was extended to 20 more subjects (see below for a full list).

For 2019, the scale has been phased in to yet more GCSEs, including (but not limited to): Ancient History, Astronomy, Business, Classical Civilisation, Design and Technology, Economics, Electronics, Engineering, Media Studies, Modern Foreign Languages and Psychology. 

The very last of the new exams will be sat in 2020. 

The scale is a dramatic shift away from the A*- G system that students, parents, and teachers have been familiar with for decades, but exam boards say it is “anchored” in the old A* - G system.

The bottom of a grade 7 is equivalent to the bottom of a grade A, for example, and the bottom of grade 4 is equivalent to the bottom of a grade C. The bottom of a 1 is aligned to the bottom of a G.

The grading scale has more grades above a grade 4 than above the old grade C, to provide greater differentiation for higher achieving students.

9 is the highest grade, and is be awarded to fewer students than the old A*.

The government introduced the scale to inject more rigour into the exam system, and to allow for more differentiation among the top performers.

Students across the country will receive GCSE and A-Level results this month

Is there room for confusion?

Over the last four years, the government has spent hundreds of thousands of pounds explaining the new system to schools, students and employers in an effort to reduce confusion.

In fact, research from exams watchdog Ofqual found in 2017 that more than some 23 per cent of employers wrongly believed that 1 was the top grade, compared with 64 per cent who correctly stated that 9 was the highest grade.

Meanwhile, eight per cent of universities also thought that 1 was the top grade, along with six per cent of headteachers, the poll found. The proportion rose to 16 per cent among parents.

Much of the confusion has centred around which grade is the equivalent of a 'C', which provides the golden ticket into many sixth form colleges and apprenticeship programmes. The DofE initially said that a grade 5 - the equivalent of a high C or low B - will be seen as a “good pass”.

At the same time, however, a grade 4 would be sufficient to avoid compulsory English and Maths re-sits. This left schools and sixth form colleges scratching their heads - which is the long-recognised golden ticket into sixth-form college, a 4 or a 5?

Justine Greening, the Education Secretary, was forced to step in to end the confusion by announcing in 2017 that grade 4 will be a “standard pass” and grade 5 a “strong pass”.

But many students, teachers, and employers will undoubtedly remain unconvinced that a “standard” pass and a “strong” pass are really so different.

Will A-Levels use the 9-1 system?

No. A-Levels will continue be marked on an A* - E system.

Does this apply to all of Britain?

No. Wales will retain the traditional grading scale while pupils in Northern Ireland will have a mixture of A*-G and numerical grades.