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GCSE changes explained

Get to grips with the new '9-1' GCSE grading structure and find out how GCSE curriculum changes will affect you - and your future university prospects.

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GCSE reforms: what's changed?

Exams and assessment

  • Most exams will be taken at the end of the two-year course rather than on completion of modules.
  • There will be fewer ‘bite-sized’ questions and more essay-style questions.
  • The content will be more challenging, with more substantial texts in English literature and a number of new topics in maths.
  • ​Everyone will have to do at least two science GCSEs (single science options have been dropped as of 2016).
  • Coursework and controlled assessment will disappear from most subjects, apart from practical ones such as art, dance and drama.

The changes to GCSEs are designed to make subject content and exams more challenging and are being slowly introduced in England and Wales; you can see the full timeline for changes here.

New GCSE grades explained

Grading will move to a 9-1 scale instead of the A*-G scaling (though it's worth checking below when your subjects will make the switch).

In the new grading system:
  • 9 is higher than a current A*
  • 8 is between and A* and A.
  • 7 is are equal to an A
  • 6 is equivalent to a high B  
  • 5 is between a B and C (strong pass)
  • 4 is equal to a grade C (standard pass)
  • 3 is in between a D and E
  • 2 is between an E and F
  • 1 is a G
  • U refers to an ungraded paper

The table below compares the new grades 9-1 to the A*-G grading structure:

Wales and Northern Ireland

There are some differences to how GCSEs have changed in Wales and Northern Ireland:

  • Wales and Scotland will keep the A*-G grading scale, although Northern Irish students may end up with a mix of numerical and alphabetical grading (depending on the exam board).
  • In Wales, two maths GCSE qualifications will be taken by students, as well as new-style Welsh language qualifications.

GCSEs aren't taken in Scotland, so these reforms won't have an impact there.

What do I need to know this GCSE results day?

If you're picking up results in August, you'll find that many of your subjects will be graded under the new system. However, depending on the subjects you're taking, you may also receive grades under the old one.

In 2018, a larger batch of subjects (including history, geography, music and computer science) will be graded 1-9, alongside English literature, English language and maths (which were the first to be graded under the new system, last year).

Further subjects will make the leap to the 1-9 system in 2019.

As you can see in the table above, old and new grades don't match up like-for-like. However, a 4 is being classified as a standard pass, which can be broadly compared to a grade C, while a 5 is a strong pass. Grades 9-7 are roughly equivalent to the old top grades of A* and A.

If you're unclear what your grades mean or how they compare, speak to a teacher on results day.
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    How will this affect my future university application?

    University might seem a long way off when you’re deciding on your GCSEs or picking up your results, but your GCSE choices and grades can directly impact your later options at sixth form or college and ultimately, your university choices.

    Most universities look for at least Cs in GCSE English, maths and perhaps science which means a grade 5 or 4 is likely to be required in future applications. Some university courses go further and list specific subjects and grades they expect you to have so make sure you check directly with universities to find out their requirements. 

    If you've got an idea of the degree subject you want to study, take a look at the entry requirements for specific courses at universities and work back from there (ie 'This university course requires these A-levels; and to get on to this A-level course, I need these GCSEs...').

    If you haven't got a clue about what you want to study at university just yet, then having a good mix of subjects – including both the traditional academic subjects featuring in the English Baccalaureate model and creative subjects you're interested in will help keep your options open.

    Our A-level Explorer tool can help with some early university ideas.

    How A-level reforms change things

    Due to the changes to A-levels, GCSE grades are likely to play a more imporant role in university admissions.

    Because AS-levels will no longer count towards your final A-level grade (though they can contribute to Ucas points), admissions staff are more likely to look further afield when considering your application; this may well include your GCSE grades.

    Where could your A-levels take you?

    Enter your A-level choices below to find out

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