New GCSEs: a guide for parents

The government releases its official GCSE results each year in January for secondary schools in England and it's always an exciting time for School Guide. We pull in the new performance data and watch the GCSE dials on our school pages go up and down. For the first time we display our 2015/16 Star Ratings, our own unique rating for each school, ranging from one to five stars, which gives a summary of how well each school has performed in the previous year based on key government statistics.

However, as January 2016 is the penultimate year that we will pull in data in this soon to be 'old school' format, we thought it was time to give parents the lowdown on the wide range and, on occassion quite confusing, GCSE changes.

January 2018 will see a whole new set of results published and there won't be a grade A in sight. It's data, folks, but not as we know it.

So, if you are unsure what the new modes of assesment and measures of progress including Attainment 8, Ebacc and numeric scores mean, read on.

The GCSE times they are a-changing

The landscape of GCSEs is changing dramatically over the next five years; with the United Kingdom trailing behind at number 23 in the most recent PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) survey, the Department for Education is keen to push through educational reform to challenge our country's future trailblazers and improve the UK's international ranking.

As of September 2015, schools across the country have begun teaching the new GCSE curriculum in preparation for the first in a new line of exams in 2017. Schools can also choose to opt into "Progress 8"; a new accountability measure aimed at assessing the progress of pupils across a selected set of eight subjects. It has been introduced alongside another linked new measure called "Attainment 8." Multitudinous acronyms, new assessment criteria and syllabus buzz words all stem from a governmental determination to 'toughen up' our exam system. The idea being that qualifications will become more consistent and more closely aligned with university expectations.

Students will no longer be able to rely upon coursework to bolster their end of term scores in a return to O-level style examinations.  In the summer of 2017, students will take all of their exams at the end of the year and will be required to learn a much wider and more demanding syllabus.

The changes began back in September 2012 when Mr Gove announced, but quickly withdrew, a move to a Baccalaureate system. The death knoll of the English Baccalaureate Certificate (EBC) provided great relief for those who felt the focus on five core academic subjects diminished the importance of the Arts. However as of September 2015, nearly all children in year 7 began studying the five core academic EBacc subjects in anticipation of their GCSES.   Making the EBacc compulsory and linking it to Ofsted inspections has certainly clarified the government's position on all children mastering academic subjects.

In another change, all GCSEs have moved away from the modular syllabus to a linear syllabus and in June 2013, the last modular GCSE exam was taken. A level content is also being revised and A level exams will also be linear i.e. taken at the end of the course. AS results will not count towards the A level grade and resits will mean redoing all the exams. Read more on the A level changed here:

When do our children start the new GCSEs?

  1. The first phase of changes kicked in during the September 2015 school term, with students encountering a new English language, English literature and maths syllabus on which they will be tested in June, 2017.
  2. The second phase kicks off in September 2016 with new teaching of science (including separate sciences), languages, history, geography, art & design, PE, computer science, design & technology, religious studies, music, drama and citizenship and drama. The first exams to test the new teaching will take place in June 2018.

In an attempt to make the new curriculum 'fit for purpose,' any subjects that fall outside of the above list may face not being ratified by the regulating exam body OFQUAL. This is already the case for iGCSEs which are not included in the government performance tables, a fact that is widely criticised by top academic schools such as Wellington College who report that they will pull out of 'irrelevant' league tables that do not include international GCSEs from next year.

Those subject that are included in the performance tables will no longer have the traditional grading system. Gone are the days of A*, A, B right through to an U, GCSEs will now graded from a nine for half of students currently scoring A* down to an average score of four for those achieving a current grade C or above except in maths where according to OFQUAL it will be harder than the current system allows. Numeric scores will be given in descending order with one point being awarded to students achieving an average current G.

The more demanding maths syllabus has occurred due to a knock on effect from the new primary curriculum requiring students understand concepts that were traditionally targeted at children two academic years ahead. The move to a linear system now puts much more pressure on students to succeed in exams and the new maths syllabus contains no coursework.

Exam answer papers will also now be expected to contain accurate spelling, punctuation and grammar (SPaG, another primary curriculum priority) and as a consequence in some subjects a percentage of marks will be attributed accordingly; 5% in English literature and 20% in English language. The prioritisation of the core subjects means that pupils will only be able to re-take these three subjects (English literature, language and maths) in the November GCSE retakes; no other re-takes will be allowed. 

New GCSE subjects (2016) 

September 2016 sparks a new phase of GCSE changes; as well as English literature, English language and maths, students will be able to choose from the following subjects. Final exams in these subjects will be graded nine to one and will take place in June 2018:

ancient languages
art and design
citizenship studies
computer science
double science
food preparation and nutrition
modern foreign languages
physical education
religious studies

New GCSE subjects (2018)

From September 2018, pupils will see the arrival of yet more new GCSE subjects. These will be tested in the summer of 2020:

ancient history
classical civilisation
design and technology
film studies
information and communications technology (ICT)
media studies


Setting or 'tiering' students according to their projected abilities will stop in some subjects but different exam papers aimed at higher or lower achievers will continue in maths, science and languages.

With all these changes still to be implemented up until 2020, students beginning Year 7 have many choices and exams to face, but one thing is sure, the new curriculum is designed to ensure our students master a higher standard in core subject areas and this knowledge will be uncompromisingly tested.

Finally, we recently found this interactive tool to help guide parents through the changes to GSCEs and A levels. Warning: it contains gov-speak like "headline measures published" but it gives a broad sense of timings and what to expect, when. 

What do you think of the new changes to the GCSE curriculum? Have your say below.