"A,B,C, it's easy as 1,2,3?"

Navigating the Trials, Tribulations and Triumphs of the Numerical Grading System


Anyone who was teaching English in a secondary school prior to the summer of 2015 may well remember the period with quite a large sense of nostalgia. A time when an A* was an A*, a C grade was recognised as the benchmark everyone wanted to achieve, controlled assessment protocols were definitely being “followed” and George and Lennie’s dream was still somewhat alive.

In 2015 all of this changed; English departments had been trying to prepare for the GCSE overhaul since Gove announced the sweeping changes to the system. The changes included, but were not limited to: the scrapping of controlled assessments, four exams at the end of the two year course, changes to the texts studied, closed text exams and of course the changes to the grading system. Gone were the letters which had served countless generations so well. Why did the good, old fashioned letters of my exam certificates have to go? Were they no longer fit for purpose? And what was to replace them? Numbers 1 to 9.

The multitudinous questions that were thrown up by this change just kept coming. Questions came from fellow department members, students, confused parents and even SLT; and I knew these questions were not just limited to my school. Friends in other schools were equally as confused, this felt oddly reassuring - no one really seemed sure of what to expect. Ofqual released a table of the new grade system with comparisons to the old grade system. The changes stated that 4, 5 and 6 would be variations of the old B and C grades and that 7 and 8 would be variants of an A or an A*. They even added a grade 9, the equivalent of an “A**”. Yet again, more questions. Would the school be judged against our 4 or 5 grades? Which grades would Sixth Forms want? Which grades would be acceptable to take an English A-level? How could you compare students who had received a B grade just the year before under the old system with students who received a 5 or 6 under the new system?

Despite the largely unanswered questions we began the task of trying to plan and teach the new course, I had a class of students who had Target Minimum Grades of between 3 and 5. Every class has a unique set of challenges, but having a class were the majority of students are on the borderline of a “good pass” (and that achieving this “good pass” is not secure), is something I have always found to be pretty challenging. You want to stretch the class so that they can achieve their personal best but I have never wanted to do this to the point where students feel unmanageable pressure and in some cases even fear; fear of failing, fear of letting themselves or others down. At the best of times these worries and fears can be difficult to alleviate but when you as a teacher are not completely secure what constitutes which grade on a piece of work this becomes nigh on impossible.

Over the course of two years we kept ploughing our way through the GCSE; chipping tirelessly (and, I’ll admit it, often tiredly) at the sometimes seemingly impenetrable language of Victorian non-fiction, attempting to explain the context of ‘A Christmas Carol’ or exploring the subtlety of metaphor in Wordsworth’s ‘The Prelude’. As with any school entering data is part of the everyday workings of my institution and so I, and the rest of the department, endeavoured to enter what we believed to be the most accurate data we could. When you have no past papers available, limited model responses and assessment objectives that are open to interpretation this task becomes even more complex. Yet we kept plugging away, entering data and feeding back to our students and parents at every step; guiding students with what they needed to do to maintain or achieve the next grade up. Along the way we kept giving the information to students that we had, in turn, been given that a 5 was a pass and that was the target we needed to be aiming for. Then in March 2017, less than eight weeks before the GCSE exams were due to start, Justine Greening wrote a letter to the Education Select Committee Chair. The letter, an attempt to provide “certainty” around the different grades, what the grades meant and what would be considered a pass. Again all of this coming at the end of March. Weeks before students across the country were due to start exams. The impact? More questions, more uncertainty. The group most impacted by this letter? The students. The people who were sitting this new, uncertain GCSE. 

During the next eight weeks year 11 concluded in the same ways as it always has - leaving speeches, shirt signing, class photos and a prom. We offered after school revision classes and sessions before the start of the exams as we had always done. As each of the four English exams were sat there was a feeling of entering the unknown. Would the extracts be the ones we had predicted? Would the students follow the advice we had liberally handed out? As with any exam season, once the students walk into the exam hall the die is cast; all you can do is hope for the best and wait till August.

There is much to enjoy and relish about results day; some teenagers who rip open their results envelopes with the gusto of a small child at Christmas, to the more nervous students who chose to open their results in a quieter place, often away from the stares of eager teachers, parents or peers. Then there are those whose results are not what they hoped for – despite best efforts or in spite of personal struggles, and sometimes tragedies, that have marred their time as a teenager at school. As a department we set to the task of working out what we had achieved and as we had been doing for the past couple of years asking ourselves questions: what would we do differently now that we had a set of results? How could we ensure that any further announcements or changes that were made outside of our control did not have a negative impact on our students?

As my current year 11 approach the second set of exams and I’m now helping to guide my third group through the sometimes murky waters of the GCSE, the tempestuous seas of the new course seem to be calming but the storm does not appear to be over. At least not yet.

This blog was written by a Head of Year 9 and English teacher at an inner-London Secondary School.