GCSE and International GCSE

ICS Learn logo

Are the New 9 – 1 GCSEs Really Harder? Grade Boundaries Explained

 You’ve probably heard a lot about the new GCSEs being designed to be more difficult. And it’s true that the questions are harder and that their purpose is to push talented students further.

However, contrary to common opinion – and, you might think, common sense - this doesn’t make it harder to get a good grade.

How, you might ask? How can an exam which is deliberately more difficult not make it – well – more difficult?

Say hello to your new best friend: grade boundaries.

Grade boundaries are the marks you need to achieve a certain grade. The boundaries change slightly every year so that no year group is disadvantaged by an unusually easy or difficult exam. For example, if the average mark needed for a C is 30%, you might need 28% to get a C in a more difficult year, while 32% will get you a C for an easier paper.

When the government decided to introduce these significantly harder GCSEs in order to stretch advanced students, they wanted to make sure everyone else wasn’t disadvantaged. To achieve this, they lowered the grade boundaries considerably across the board.

To achieve a grade C pass on the old-style GCSE Maths Foundation tier exam, you would have typically needed around 70%. To get the equivalent grade 4 pass on the new (9-1) GCSE Maths Foundation tier exam in summer 2017, you only needed 51%.

To achieve a C pass on the Maths Higher tier exam, you would have typically needed 30% in previous years. To get a grade 4 in summer 2017, you only needed 17%.

girl studying with apple

The conclusion? Pretty much everyone who would have gotten a C under the old system got an equivalent Grade 4 or 5 under the new one.*

Same goes for those who would have achieved a B – Grade 5 or 6 for them, and Grades 7, 8 or 9 for those who would have achieved an A or above.

The main difference is that now, the Grade A students have more room to spread out – instead of being limited to only a 7 (A) or 8 (A*), they can also score a 9 – essentially an A**.

This is to bring our education system more in line with that of academically high-achieving countries such as South Korea, Singapore and Japan, allowing UK students to compete in the global economy.

While this all spells good news for GCSE students, it’s worth bearing in mind that grade boundaries are predicted to rise naturally in the coming years as students’ overall results begin to improve due to the more ambitious curriculum.

That means if you’re thinking of resitting your GCSEs, it’s better to do it now rather than later to take advantage of the lower grade boundaries.


*Grade 5 is roughly a low B or high C.

 Find out more more about studying GCSEs online.

Download Your Free GCSE & IGCSE Course Guide

Get information on our GCSE & IGCSE courses

Share this post