GCSE 2017 - Grades Dip, But Standards Maintained

As expected given the level of shakeup, GCSE passes dropped albeit slightly, across a range of subjects, with some more dramatic changes in new, tougher exams sat for the first time in England.
GCSE 2017 - Grades Dip, But Standards Maintained
By David Westley
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As expected given the level of shakeup, GCSE passes dropped albeit slightly, across a range of subjects, with some more dramatic changes in new, tougher exams sat for the first time in England.

Passes in the UK, excluding Scotland, dropped 0.6% to 66.3 percent. In England, the English lit pass-rate fell 2.2 percentage points to 72.4%. In maths it dropped from 71.4 to 70.7%.

Both are new, tougher exams.

An interesting insight in terms of just how tough came from Ofqual, the exam regulator, who said a pass in maths would have been achieved in the upper tier paper with just 18% of the overall marks.  That led  Alan Smithers, an exams expert at Buckingham University, to describe the pass rate as a give away...

"In some cases, it's dropped them very low, it's more or less giving away the grade."

For a grade 9, a mark said to be higher than an A*, a 79% mark was required, while for a grade 7 - the equivalent of an A - candidates needed just over half marks.

A key complaint by some students and teachers has resulted from a lack of textbooks and practice papers, however despite this according to the regulator, standards have remained steady - a testament either to student ability and teaching, or evidence that past papers have become an unnecessary crutch over the last decade.

In total some half a million pupils received GCSE results on Thursday. The new Grade 9 was introduced in more O' Level style exams for English, English literature and maths. 

Some 3.2% of papers were awarded a 9 in English literature, 2.2% in English language and 3.5% in maths. Just 2,000 extremely able candidates got a 9 in all three new exams.


Number sat


7 +

4 +






English Literature










All Subjects





There were 50,000 grade 9s overall - two-thirds of which were girls.

The regulator said the percentage of passes would be kept the same as under the old system, in the interest of fairness, but some experts say the new exams are the toughest since the late 1980s.

Under the new system, an A is equivalent to a 7 while a C is anchored at the bottom of a grade 4.

This year also marks a divergence in qualifications between the nations, with candidates in England, Wales and Northern Ireland now all studying different exams.

In Wales, exams in English, Welsh and maths (six GCSEs in total) have also been toughened, but the qualification is still taken in units. New GCSEs in other subjects are being phased in. In Northern Ireland, where pupils are generally sitting old-style GCSEs in all subjects this year, results improved again, with one in 10 entries being awarded an A*.

Pupils in Scotland already sit a completely different set of exams.

Sally Collier, chief regulator at England's exams watchdog, said the new qualifications had allowed students "to better demonstrate their abilities" but added that the regulator had required exam boards to use the same system on comparable outcomes to ensure fairness:

"If a student receives a grade 7 today, they could have expected to have received a grade A last year. And if they get a grade 4, they could have expected to get a grade C in 2016."


Secondary school heads have expressed concern about increased stress and anxiety among pupils taking these exams and that is expected to intensify next year.


GCSE 2017 Stats

  • Entries for French and German saw falls of 10% and 12% respectively. The British Academy warned the requirement of the English baccalaureate was failing to halt the decline in the numbers of pupils studying foreign languages at GCSE.
  • Entries to physics GCSEs were up. In total, 141,977 pupils sat the exam, an increase of 1.6% on 2016. It means the science subject now accounts for 3.8% of the total papers sat, up from 2.7% last year.
  • Half of pupils say they found mistakes in exam papers, according to a survey. The poll of GCSE takers by website The Student Room also found that three quarters of them were struggling to understand the new 9-1 grading system.
  • In maths, 3.5 per cent of entries - around 19,885 in total - scored a 9
  • In English, 2.2 per cent of entries - around 13,913 in total - scored a 9
  • In English literature, 3.2 per cent - around 17,530 in total - scored a 9
  • More than double the number of grade nines were awarded to girls than boys, with 4.5 per cent of grade nines awarded to girls compared to 1.9 per cent to boys.
  • But boys won more grade nines in Maths than girls, achieving four per cent of the top grade compared to 2.9 per cent for girls.
  • Girls outperformed boys in 9 grades in both English GCSEs, while boys did better in maths at the highest result

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