The New GCSE Exams & Grading System Explained

Despite much discussion in the press about the new GCSEs, many schools, parents and students still struggle to understand and address the increased demands and implications for students of the new GCSEs.

Not only are students facing new harder GCSE exams, there are concerns that students are not being supported sufficiently nor are fully prepared for the new style exams. According to the study by The Student Room, which surveyed 3,692 students in England, half said they did not have access to suitable practice papers before their exams, while a quarter (24 per cent) felt their teachers didn’t adequately prepare them for their exams, and more than half found mistakes by exam boards in their exam papers.

Whilst GCSE exam results have always been important, sixth form courses increasingly require good passes in English and Maths as a minimum requirement. Furthermore, the changes to AS/A Levels mean that Universities are placing far more emphasis on GCSE exam results when reviewing applications, with the result that the pressure to achieve good GCSE results is increasing.

With 35+ years experience providing GCSE exam revision courses, Justin Craig’s team have a unique and well-informed perspective on this issue as well as suggestions to help students sitting their GCSEs in 2018.

New GCSE Grading System

For the first time since GCSEs were introduced, the traditional A*-U grade scale has been replaced by a new 9-1 scale – with the Government defining a grade 5 as a “strong pass”, which is slightly higher than a C in the previous lettered GCSE grading system. Although a smaller number of students will receive the highest grade, Universities are being encouraged not to draw a distinction between an 8 and a 9 in the hope that high ability students are not adversely impacted due to exam technique issues such as speed checking for silly errors and spelling/grammatical mistakes, which is now more important for a number of subjects. Full details of the new grading system can be found here

Why were the grades changed?

The reason why the grades were changed was because of a complete overhaul towards the GCSE system. This was carried out to make the UK GCSE system closer to top-performing education systems across the world. The change from letters to numerical grades allows for a greater differentiation of students on the higher end of the grade scale.

New Approach To Assessment

Most assessments will be by exam, taken at the end of the two-year course rather than on completion of modules. Questions will follow more of an essay-style format and many subjects, including geography, history and religious studies, include assessment of spelling, punctuation and grammar. Coursework and controlled assessment also disappear from most subjects aside from practical ones including art, dance and drama

Increased Difficulty

With significant increases in both the volume and complexity of topics studied, the new GCSEs are stretching for even the most able students. According to Barnaby Lenon, chairman of the Independent Schools Council, “They contain questions of a level of difficulty that we have not seen since the abolition of O-levels in 1987.”

Some specific examples of the more significant changes are provided below:

  • Maths: The new GCSE features advanced algebra, statistics, ratio, probability and geometry. Exams will contain fewer single-step questions and more non-routine problems. There will also be greater emphasis on problem-solving and mathematical reasoning.
  • English: Not only are students expected to study a broader range of texts, skills relating to inference, deduction and fluent writing using evidence from the texts has become much more important.   Furthermore, for English Language, the importance of good spelling, punctuation and grammar has increased to 20% and marks will also be awarded for a “greater range of writing skills”.
  • Geography: In the new GCSE, pupils will be examined on the range of skills needed for fieldwork and content changes include greater emphasis on the human and physical geography of the UK.
  • History: Pupils will have to complete an in-depth study based on one of three periods – Medieval (500-1500), Early Modern (1450-1750) or Modern (1700 to present day). The new GCSE course also contains no controlled assessment – coursework completed in the classroom – with exams based on extended essays and short answers.
  • Physics, Biology & Chemistry: The new science GCSEs contain practical experiments and extended work on topics such as genetics and ecology in biology, nanoparticles and bioleaching in chemistry, and energy and space in physics. The amount and level of mathematical content has also increased for all subjects.


This year’s results in England complete the sweeping changes instituted in 2013 by Michael Gove. English and maths were the first updated subjects to be examined in 2017. Since then a further 45 subjects have been changed, with 25 examined this year for the first time including design and technology.

The UK-wide results showed that a slightly higher proportion of 16-year-olds gained C/4 grades, 69.9%, up from 69.3%. There was also an increase in those attaining A/7 grades and above, with 20.7% of all exams were given grades 7, 8 or 9, which is equivalent to A or A*, making it the highest proportion since 2015. Of the 837 students achieving a clean sweep of seven grade 9s, two thirds (66.4%) were girls.

Similar to previous years, there is significant variation between subjects on the proportion of students achieving top grades. In some subjects, a third of students were awarded a grade 9, which is equivalent to a high A* under the old system. For the second year running, English and Mathematics were in the top 10 for worst performing subjects, as they saw only 13.9% and 15.9% respectively get one of the top grades. Double award science remains the worst performing subject, with just 7.5% of pupils getting a 7 or higher.


The exams may be new but the advice for achieving top grades remains unchanged: Start early, get organised and be proactive to get the most out of resources/support available.

1. Start early

Ideally, students should try to revise throughout the year rather than just in the run up to exams. Revisiting information, even something as simple as going through notes at the end of the week, helps ensure students have a good understanding of areas covered and embed the information in their memory. Then, when it comes to more complex concepts and actual revision time, students will have a good foundation upon which to build, giving them more time for applying and testing their knowledge rather than just learning.

2. Get organised

Getting organised is crucial to ensure success. By using a diary/planner and getting into a good study routine, students can help make the most of their precious time and keep track of deadlines. Ensuring notes are complete and well organised will also make revision and homework easier and less time consuming.

When it comes to revision time, draw up a timetable you can realistically stick to, breaking down what you need to study into chunks to make revision more manageable and factoring in extra time for past papers as well as topics which need more attention. Doing past papers and reading the examiners reports are one of the most useful and important resources you have – utilise them.

3. Be proactive

You may already have had feedback during parents evening but go and spend a bit more time with your teachers; speak to them properly about where you went wrong in homework, topic tests and/or mock exams (rather than a few minutes before you dash off for your next class!) . Ask questions where you don’t understand something and do take up offers of after-school revision classes or regular catch-ups for extra guidance.

You can learn a lot from your experience in mock exams. So, no matter how you get on, put aside some time to consider how you could do better in key areas such as:

  • Time management: did you set aside enough time for different sections of the exam? If not, learn to keep an eye on the clock and identify the sections worth the most marks.
  • Answering/reading the question properly: mis-reading is a common problem, so before starting, make sure you read the question 2-3 times , highlight key words and make a brief answer plan.
  • Showing all your calculations: this is especially important in maths and science, where the final result isn’t always what the examiner is looking at.
  • Providing evidence: correct sourcing is important in subjects like history or psychology where there are lots of dates, names and case studies to remember. Making your case/argument isn’t enough; you have to show evidence to back up everything you say.


With expert yet friendly tutors and small group classes, our classes are tailored to individual needs and help students by:

  • addressing subject knowledge gaps
  • providing invaluable exam technique insights, tips and practice
  • sharpening up their capabilities/ approach to revision and tackling exam papers

Still not sure? Just look at what our customers say:

  • 2/3 of customers are either repeat clients or recommendations
  • 96% of students rate their tutor/course as good, excellent or amazing

If you’re interested in how Justin Craig’s courses can help your child with their exam preparation, don’t hesitate to get in touch.