I have a confession …. I know haters are gonna hate … but I’m going to tell you anyway! I’m not actually in the UK I’m sat in a hotel bar in the French Alps as I’ve managed to wangle the first week of term off as a holiday! It wasn’t as simple as saying I’m off on a jolly but I had booked it last year when I was going to take a sabbatical from teaching before I “bottled it” and decided I need to stay in the classroom in some way, shape or form. … in my defence as part of the deal I marked all of the paper 3’s for our year 11 mocks over the Christmas holibobs so it wasn’t all one way!! I’ve even been doing some “work” in the evenings whilst soothing my aching muscles! Why I feel the need to justify it to you I have no idea and anyway I’m travelling home tomorrow!

On Thursday the first lot of “resit” students collected their results from the November exams. Cath Jadhav from Ofqual wrote about the methodology that was being used to set grade boundaries in this blog post. Essentially exam boards were going to use predictions for the 17-year-old (i.e. year 12) re-sitting students, “based on their average GCSE grade in the previous summer, to guide the setting of grade boundaries. This November they will do the same, at grades 7, 4 and 1. Those grade boundaries will then apply to all students. When it comes to setting the grade 9 boundary, we expect that there will be very few students in November aiming for a grade 9.” The blog post goes on to say that the formula used in the Summer was “intended to be used only for the first year, and using the formula would be difficult if there are only small numbers of students getting a grade 7 or above. The approach we have agreed with the exam boards is a little different therefore. Exam boards will look at how far (in terms of marks) grade 9 was above grade 7 in the summer, and use that as a starting point. Senior examiners will review scripts around that mark and compare them to grade 9 scripts from the summer. This means that the standard set for grade 9 in the summer will be maintained in November.”

So that’s how it was going to work and somewhere below (when I get to it!) shows the grade boundaries that each of the 3 main boards (I will update with the Eduqas boundaries too when I’ve managed to find them!) went with. I have said this on Twitter and I will say it again  … do not make your decisions about tiers of entry and exam boards for Summer 18 based on them! This was a resit cohort only! In fact, if we want to talk about skewed results look at the number of entries for a start: in November 2016 the number of student entries across all boards was about 59.5K but in November 2017 the number had dropped to 33K which is less than 7% of the size of a “usual” annual cohort of 550,000 students. This drop in entries could suggest that only those students close to a grade 4 were entered in November and lots of schools/colleges are choosing to go for a 1 year resit course (Anecdotally that’s what lots are telling me).

Many moons ago I whinged at the differences in the level of detail that comes out of the exam boards … the data from the November entry is no different and its really tough to get an idea about tiers of entry and performance on both tiers from the information that the boards report as standard. For example, the information from AQA , Edexcel and Eduqas are all very similar:


Whilst OCR publish this which includes cumulative numbers

Before Graham (Cumming) emails me and points it out I have to say that he always includes a load of useful stats on the grade boundary document on the emporium and this year was no different (but more on that at some point when I try to get the same information from the other boards!).  What is interesting from Edexcel is looking at the cumulative 3+ in Nov 2017 compared to an E+ from Nov 2016 on the higher tier … I’ll just leave that one there for someone to look at!! I’m sure that I will get some response from the boards via email!! This needs looking at … given that the bottom of a 3 could technically be seen as lower than an old style “E” … I’m being vague on this but will elaborate at some point I promise!!

Having digressed, here are the grade boundaries from each board … It is really important that you understand that in addition to the context surrounding the “type” of students, the number of entries (let’s be honest the size of the entries must have made the awarding meetings really interesting) , the actual papers must be taken into consideration.  In an ideal world the boundaries should only reflect the difficulty of the paper, regardless of the cohort but we know that it’s the latter that effects the distribution of the grades awarded. I’ve worked through all the papers and there are some differences in difficulty (in my opinion) from the Summer papers for some boards … I’ll leave you to do the same exercise and not take my word for it.

Seeing them like this doesn’t really tell us anything so I’ve done this to them showing how they’ve changed since the Summer. Its not a pretty picture, in the main but I would refer you to my previous comments about context and also about how the difficulty has varied ….



I get the reasons behind this new GCSE, I really do … but I’m just not convinced that what we have got at the minute is delivering what it set out to do. Some of the aims given to us by the powers that be, was to have a greater differentiation of grades at the top end and less “bunching” up at the crucial grade boundaries but having such narrow grade boundaries is really not helping deliver this especially for the middle of the distribution curve (i.e. a large majority of students).  And don’t get me started on whether its easier to get a 4 or a 5 on Higher or Foundation and the fact that our accountability measure is (Ok they still report the 4+), lets be honest a 5 whilst students only need a 4 … what’s their incentive to work harder if they don’t “need” a 5? By increasing the demand of the papers, standards will (eventually!) be raised but by raising the accountability measure I suspect the government thought that it would achieve their goal faster … by the way, if that was the intention why didn’t they just keep the old GCSE grades and raise the accountability measure to a grade B and then for the 2000 or so “super-dooper” students get them to do Further Maths as an extension to the GCSE.

I have tried to be positive about the long-term outlook for this new GCSE – I’ve always maintained that this GCSE isn’t aimed at the current students in KS3 and KS4 but for those students that have been subject to both the new KS1 and KS2 curriculum. We should have just bloody waited for them to come through the system – if the outcomes of KS1/2 continue to improve, as it seems to be (on the ground I’m getting told that year 7’s are improving year on year) and we get more mathematically literate students coming through with a secure body of knowledge the GCSE will become less challenging and standards will improve. In the meantime, it feels like we have some demoralising times ahead and I am genuinely worried about where the next generation of teachers will come from … even for the most -able students, telling them that getting 50% correct is ok isn’t right in my book – I’ve tried, I really have tried to sell it to myself but it’s not working any more. Less than 3% of the students will be getting more than 80% correct and these are our crème de la crème and the ones that, in my experience have more resilience. Trying to tell a middle-ability (“attaining” if you wish to call it that) student that “actually in your case 15% is good” is bloody hard work and soul-destroying at times. For those of you that say a grade 4 student should be doing Foundation tier (I’d say it depends on the student) its the same with the Foundation tier too … what message is it sending saying ” 39% ” is actually ok ?

With regards these middle students, I am not even convinced there is parity between a grade 4 awarded on the higher and a grade 4 awarded on the foundation tiers and the same for a grade 5. How can a grade 5 (remember that’s the “strong” pass) be awarded with 25% of the marks on Higher and less than half of the marks on Foundation? These students are supposed to be considered to have been successful, yet they haven’t accessed the majority of the examinations that they sat. And what about the impact at A level, it really worries me that a student could have got up to 65% of the paper wrong, been awarded a grade 6 and yet be allowed to study A level. Its setting such low expectations for the targets of success that are totally unrealistic in the work place … imagine saying to your gaffer: I’ve delivered 40% of that project I was tasked with, so I must be doing ok.

Again. I’ve gone off on a tangent. So what do these grade boundaries tell us? None of the things that this GCSE promised to deliver have come to fruition (should I add a “yet” here?) … apart from:

  • it’s tougher and
  • it’s bigger (i.e. more examination time) and
  • it’s graded 9-1!

I’ve already mentioned it, but the narrow grade boundaries are a real issue for me … in one case there are only 13 marks out of 240 difference between a grade 3 and a grade 4 (remember 3’s have to resit!). As someone who sat the paper as an external candidate I know how easy it is to lose silly marks (and I’m not a 16-year-old sitting 19 other exams!!). That aside what does it tell someone about a student’s ability if they are awarded a grade 1 for only getting 7 or 8% correct after 11 years of education (the point was to raise standards!!). It’s felt all along that there is a conflict between raising standards, school accountability and giving students the opportunity to show what they know. I genuinely don’t think all of these things can be addressed at the same time. And don’t get me started about the higher tier … 50% of the paper is meant to be aimed at grade 7+ (so out of a total examination time over the Foundation and Higher tier) 25% of the time could be seen as just for the old grade A/A* students (about 16% of students in 2016)

Seriously it’s a mess. Will anyone admit to it being a mess? Of course not. No one is listening, they will bury their heads and write self-congratulatory tweets picking out the statistics that make it look like its working and carry on as normal. That said, it doesn’t mean that we just accept everything that comes our way … never do that!!

Sometimes I need to remind myself that it will get easier. At some point in the future I dream of teaching a group of year 10 or year 11 students that remember 10 squared is 100 and not 20, or that 20 is a multiple of 10 and not a factor. Some of you may even teach those students now but for those of us that focus on the middle attaining students there is hope … So what if the new GCSE doesn’t deliver what it was meant to? All of the things that were wrong with the old A*-G GCSE are still there .. nothing has changed. For those of you that looked at the original picture at the top of this post and thought “that all looks a bit sh1tty” …  look at the clouds next to the mountain. Sometimes you have to look a little bit closer, see through the murk and mud to see something beautiful that was always there – we just couldn’t see it … the “maths” is still there! We will continue to teach kids “stuff” and hopefully inspire a student or two to go on and become better mathematicians than we are!