New GCSE Grades (9-1) Explained for Parents & Carers

Charlotte Bailey, Founder of Typically Topical, Study Skills Expert & Top 2% Student. 

June 2019

*This post may contain affiliate links. Please read the disclosure.*

If you’re like many parents (and even students!), we were all confused when the new GCSE grades hit the scene. 

Letters were replaced with numbers, the previous scale didn’t match the new scale and now there’s an extra grade added to the list. The bombshell hit parents, carers, students and teachers hard!

No need to panic though.

Here’s a quick guide that helps you to understand the jargon and system associated with the new GCSE grades.

Note: At the moment, the new GCSE grade system only applies to students in England. Northern Ireland will start to see a mix of the old and new system. Scotland still maintains their new higher exam system, and Wales maintains the old system (for now).

What is a GCSE?

GCSE stands for General Certificate of Secondary Education.

It’s often taken at the end of the high school years (Years 10-11), although they can be taken early. This qualification enables students to progress onto Sixth Form/College or gain a placement on an apprenticeship.

The number of GCSEs taken by a student varies by school (and sometimes a child’s ability), with the average number being 6-8. The IGCSE is the international equivalent of the UK GCSE.

What do the new GCSE grades look like? How do they compare to the old GCSE grades?

9 is the highest grade that can be achieved, whilst a 1 is the lowest, not including a U grade. In the old system, A* was the highest grade to achieve, whilst a G was the lowest, again not including a U grade.

In the new system, there will be little to no emphasis on coursework, rather the number will be calculated purely on the exams they sit at the end of year 11.

Taking modules early in Year 10 will also be scrapped too. Talk about making an already tough time even tougher!

Pro tip: If your child has previously struggled with exam technique and revision, now would be the time to help them develop the necessary study skills to cope with the new changes. There are practically no lifelines with the new GCSE system due to the coursework element being removed. 

New GCSE grades vs Old GCSE grades in context

You can probably now see why it gets even more confusing – the new grades sit in ‘between’ the old grades.

 For example, a new 8 is too high for an A grade, but too low for an A*. Plus, there is no direct equivalent for the new 9 in the old grading system. 

 It is expected that the number of 9’s achieved will be incredibly rare.


I’ve heard the terms ‘standard’ and ‘strong’ pass. What do they mean?

A standard pass is a grade 4 – roughly equivalent to an old grade C. Employers will be looking for grade 4 and above to count as a pass. A grade 4 is often considered as the minimum requirement to study the subject further at Sixth Form/College.

A strong pass is grade 5 and above. This is often just an internal performance measure for schools to understand your child’s ability.

Additional new rule: Students who DON’T achieve a minimum of a grade 4 in Maths and English (only these 2 subjects at the moment) MUST study these subjects post GCSEs. You can find more information about that here.

Why the change?

According to government authorities, the change in the grading system is because a more demanding curriculum is being taught.

Ofqual, the exam regulating body, says that the change in grades allow for ‘more differentiation for high-performing students’, and the new system will help identify those students who have performed ‘exceptionally well’.

How many students will receive the top grades?

Hard to give a definite answer as the curriculum has become more challenging. However, based on Ofqual’s Promotional Youtube Video, the vast majority of students will achieve between grades 3-6. 

As a parent, what should I be focusing on to help my child during their studies?

There are lots of things you could focus on, but based on the new changes, here are my top 3 recommendations;

  1. Exam technique (time management, in-exam strategies for racking up marks quickly, not making silly mistakes on easier questions)
  2. Revision strategies (finding the strategies that work for them based on their individual learning style and personality)
  3. Stress management (with the increased pressure to perform well on exams, and a lack of coursework to fall back on, stress and anxiety management will be crucial to success)


Wrapping Up

I’m not convinced that this change was thought through well enough. To me, this just sounds like more cause for exam anxiety, stress and pressure.

With mental health illnesses on the rise amongst young people, I question whether the impact was truly considered. With a more challenging curriculum too, I think it just incentivises young people to study for hours and hours on end.

Plus, how on earth do employers begin to compare the old A* to the new 9, or any grade for that matter? I’m all for change (in the right direction), but for me, it wasn’t a smart move.

Let me know in the comments what you think. Is your child finding a difference in school with the new system?