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Ofqual issues warning about higher tier GCSE grade boundaries

By Mark Richards,

24 Jan 2020

For teachers who have been in the profession for a while, the annual dilemma of deciding which GCSE tier the students they teach should be entered for has often caused a fair bit of anxiety and a few sleepless nights. Get the decision right, of course, and pupils have the opportunity to realise their full potential and a school can demonstrate higher rates of pupil progress.

Get it wrong, and you run the risk of a young person ending up with nothing. Of course, with the reformed GCSEs now rolled-out in all subjects, such decisions and dilemmas have largely been taken out of teachers’ hands, as there are now less subjects that offer tiered entry. However, tiers do still exist in a handful of subjects and now Ofqual, the exam watchdog, has warned teachers that the leniency around grade boundaries last summer will not be carried on to this summer’s examination series. It would seem that the honeymoon period and teachers are back to having to make very careful choices about which tier their pupils should be entered for in their GCSE exams.

The allowances that Ofqual and exam boards made last year – described as ‘exceptional’ – will not continue. Ofqual publishes a series of open letters Ofqual’s chief regulator, Sally Collier, has published open letters to schools that reiterate the arrangements for grading this summer at higher tier level for GCSE Combined Science and GCSE modern foreign languages. The letters also explain the approach that was taken last year and how the forthcoming summer series will differ.

Allowances were made for pupils who achieved grades on higher tier papers that were lower than expected.

The concessions were allowed as it was the first time that the new exams had been sat by pupils under the new reformed specification.

In all, on the higher tier GCSE Combined Science paper, around a third of schools who were allowed to be awarded a 3-3 grade last year.

However, Collier has now made it clear that such allowances will not continue into the 2019 series. Pupils sitting the higher tier GCSE Combined Science paper should only be awarded grades ranging from 4-4 through to the top grades of 9-9.

Statistically, a small number of students who ‘just miss’ the threshold of a 4-4 will be awarded a ‘safety net’ of 4-3n grades, with all others receiving nothing – an ‘Unclassified’ result. Ofqual has also confirmed the arrangements for the safety net in GCSE modern foreign languages will be set at half a grade.

Any pupil who gets lower marks than this will be given an ‘Unclassified’ result. Pupils predicted a Grade 4 should not be entered for higher tier Ofqual has also warned against the notion that pupils who are predicted to achieve ‘around a 4’ in either GCSE modern foreign languages or GCSE Combined Science should automatically be entered for the higher tier in these subjects.

This tends to be the advice given by some third-party organisations and companies who specialise in providing school improvement training.

However, the official advice from Ofqual seems to be that schools that take this approach are playing a dangerous game, as students are at risk of missing out on a GCSE grade – or two grades (for GCSE Combined Science).

Ofqual’s position is that any students expected to achieve a Grade 4 should only be entered for foundation tier papers.