Preparing for GCSEs

The previous version of this article was one of the very popular write-ups at the time it was published. Given the current GCSE reforms however, it now requires an overhaul. In this special edition, the spotlight will be upon the changes and what parents should expect in this new era.

The reforms have been introduced because the government had to do something about the dumbing down of the grades and the GCSE qualification as a whole as UK school leavers were increasingly at risk of not being able to measure up internationally. Before the changes, it was not unusual for a pupil to resit an exam a number of times until they got their desired grade. Coursework generally made it easier to attain top grades; and this coupled with pupils being able to score very high points on average by getting top grades in non-core subjects meant the GCSE qualification was increasingly becoming less competitive internationally.

The English Baccalaureate (EBacc) measure for schools has been introduced as part of the overhaul. For all pupils starting year 7 from September 2015, their overall performance will depend largely on how well they perform in at least five EBacc subjects when they reach their GCSEs (see Attainment 8 section below for detailed impact). The EBacc will also be used to measure each school’s performance and help with ease of comparison. When looking at the schools’ league tables previously, it wasn’t easy to tell whether the percentage of 5 A-C grades attained was for achievement in core academic subjects or not. This will be a thing of the past once the EBacc measurement is operating in its fullness.

What will the new GCSEs look like?[1]

The main features of the new GCSEs are:

  • A new grading scale of 9 to 1 will be used, with 9 being the top grade. This will allow greater differentiation between students and will help distinguish the new GCSEs from previous versions.
  • Assessment will be mainly by exam, with other types of assessment used only where they are needed to test essential skills.
  • There will be new, more demanding content, which has been developed by government and the exam boards.
  • Courses will be designed for two years of study – they will no longer be divided into different modules and students will take all their exams in one period at the end of their course.
  • Exams can only be split into foundation tier and higher tier if one exam paper does not give all students the opportunity to show their knowledge and abilities.
  • Resit opportunities will only be available each November in English language and maths.

Teaching began for English Language, English Literature and Mathematics in the new GCSEs from September 2015, with the first results to be issued in the summer this year (2017). By August 2020 all GCSE grades will be based on the new style.





Attainment 8 Scores

Attainment 8 scores have been introduced as part of the transformation; it measures the achievement of a pupil across 8 qualifications including:

  • Mathematics (double weighted);
  • English (double weighted);
  • 3 more qualifications that count in the EBacc measure; plus
  • 3 other qualifications that can be any of GCSE / EBacc / other non-GCSE on the DfE approved list.

Each grade a pupil achieves is assigned a point score, used to calculate his/her Attainment 8 score.

So what does this mean for parents?

There are arguments for and against these reforms however the focus of this article is to help parents understand them and effectively navigate through the changes so that they are better equipped to support their children. This is the new standard and it is very likely that institutions of higher learning and employers will soon start to use the Attainment 8 measures in their selection criteria if not already doing so.

The tilt is now more towards core academic subjects and a child who does better in such subjects will have higher Attainment 8 scores. Below is an example of two children who get top grades in all their exams but once of them ends up with a much lower Attainment 8 score due to the choice of fewer EBacc subjects.

*Note that Maths is always double weighted

** English is only double weighted when both subjects are taken and the higher of the two is used in the total score

***Although 8 points are scored in these subjects they do not count towards the Attainment 8 score. Also note that a single science subject does not count towards the EBacc score thus schools often encourage pupils to take at least two sciences..

Child A scores 8 points in 8 subjects including 5 EBacc subjects. As both English Language and English Literature are taken, English is double-weighted. All the subjects taken by this child count toward the Attainment 8 score to a total score of 80 which is comparable to an all round average of A* using today’s measures.

Child B also scores 8 points in 8 subjects however this only includes 2 EBacc subjects. As only English Language is taken, English is single weighted. Only 5 of the 8 subjects taken by this child count towards the Attainment 8 score leading to a total score of 48 which is comparable to an all round average of C using today’s measures

Note that the schools cannot force a child to take any subjects however the scoring system ensures that a child is now better rewarded for taking core academic subjects and this will go on to impact future choices.

It is important for parents to know which subjects their children are taking and to encourage them to choose academic subjects particularly if they have the capability. Getting the foundations right in academic subjects earlier on in life i.e. from primary school level will put a child in good stead when it comes to sitting the GCSEs later. Parents should consider investing in getting this foundation right in core subjects, as it is easier to build upon a solid foundation than to struggle along further downstream.

Also useful to note is that the EBacc measure will make it easier to interpret the league tables. This feature is handy for parents of primary school age children when considering their child’s secondary schools options.

More details on the impact of these changes will be covered in future editions of the newsletter.


  1. Bimpe Olowe

    As a parent of a year 9 student i found this blog extremely uesful. I particularly like the clarity provided by the 2 examples used to explain the Ebacc weighting and i now have a better understanding of how the new system works.

    1. BBA

      Thanks Bimpe!
      Glad you found it useful. Feel free to forward it to your friends who may find it useful.

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