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What 4, 5 or 6 grades mean in letter system and number grading explained

When GCSE pupils collect their results on Thursday morning, they will be confronted by a grading system that might be confusing to their parents .

Introduced in 2017, the numerical format changed GCSE grades from an A* to G to range from a 9 to a 1 (with 9 being the top result and 1 being the lowest).

It was designed to bring in more differentiation at the top end of the grading scale, to better understand what level young people are working to – here’s how it all works.

What are the letter equivalents to GCSE grades?

As per the guide below, issued by the exams regulator Ofqual, the numerical system essentially boils down to the following:

  • 9 = High A* grade
  • 8 = Lower A* or high A
  • 7 = Lower A grade
  • 6 = High B grade
  • 5 = Lower B or high C
  • 4 = Lower C grade
  • 3 = D or high E
  • 2 = Lower E or high F
  • 1 = Lower F or G
  • U = U remains the same
How the 'new' numerical GCSE grades compare to the 'old-money' letter equivalents (Photo: Ofqual)
How the ‘new’ numerical GCSE grades compare to the ‘old-money’ letter equivalents (Photo: Ofqual)

The numerical system means that, while a pass used to be a simple C grade, there are now two marks considered a “pass” for GCSE students.

Schools are judged by the proportion of its pupils that achieve a “standard” pass and above, which is denoted by a grade 4.

This means that anybody achieving a grade 4 or above in English and maths will not have to resit these qualifications under regulations introduced in 2015/16.

Slightly confusingly, schools are also held to account for the proportion of pupils that gain a “strong” pass or above which is a grade 5.

While grading is no harsher than under the previous system, the GCSE curriculum is now designed to have more content and some of the questions in exam papers are intended to be harder, to identify students on course to gain a grade 9.

A 9 grade isn’t exactly the same as an old money A*: essentially it’s better, as an 8 is also roughly equivalent to the lower half of the A* band and a higher A.

Under the numerical system relatively few students should be achieving grade 9s in normal years, as they will effectively be rationed.

What will happen to GCSE grades in 2023?

According to the exams regulator Ofqual this year’s national results will be lower than last summer, just as was the case for A-levels last week.

The number of A-level students awarded A* and A grades fell by 9.2 percentage points, while the overall pass rate was down to 97.3 per cent from 98.4 per cent in 2022.

This dip is the result of exam boards returning to pre-pandemic grading, in an attempt to return to normal service after several years of grade inflation.

The decision to adjust this year’s grade boundaries was confirmed in a statement last year from Dr Jo Saxton, Chief Regulator of Ofqual: “In 2023, we will return to pre-pandemic grading as the next step in getting back to normal.”

In a blog post for Ofqual, Rachel Taylor, Associate Director, Standards & Technical Issues, said that exam comparisons should be made with those taken before the pandemic.

She wrote: “It will be most meaningful to compare this year’s results with 2019, the last year that summer exams were taken before the pandemic.

“As in any year, results for individual schools and colleges will vary. The approach to grading means that results for individual schools and colleges are highly likely to be lower than last summer.”

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