GCSE maths: choosing the ‘right’ tier

This month is the deadline for schools to enter students for this summer’s new GCSEs, including maths. They’ll already know which specification they’re teaching, but there is also the choice of which tier to enter students.

For those less familiar with the detail of GCSE maths, there are two tiers: foundation and higher. Each tier is targeted at a range of the new numerical grades: 9 to 4 on the higher tier (with a ‘safety net’ grade 3 for students scoring a small number of marks below grade 4), and 5 to 1 on the foundation tier.

Students can achieve grades 5 to 3 on both tiers, and the exam papers will include some questions that are the same on both tiers. This will help exam boards ensure that it is no more or less difficult to achieve the same grade on different tiers.

The reformed GCSE maths qualifications are different to the old qualifications. They contain new, more demanding content, and have a greater focus on problem solving. So the relative demand of each tier has changed compared to the old qualifications; the bottom grade on the higher tier will be more demanding than in the old specifications, as will the top grade on the foundation tier.

We are interested in how schools are making their tier entry decisions in light of these changes. We spoke to teachers in a dozen schools about these changes last year and today we published a report of our findings.

Teachers told us that they based their decisions on a range of information, such as a student’s prior attainment and expected achievement, but that they were more hesitant about their tier entry choices this year. This was because there was less information available about the new qualifications, such as past examination papers and grade boundaries. We recently published a blog about the difficulties of predicting grade boundaries ahead of this summer.

Nearly all schools said they were changing their approach for the reformed qualifications, mainly by entering more students into the foundation tier – see chart below. This was due to the more demanding content, which they felt made the higher tier too much of a stretch for some students who might previously have been entered for it.

Our findings are based on a small number of schools, so don’t necessarily represent the views of all schools nationally. However, they provide an indication that schools are actively considering tier entries in light of the changes to the qualifications, which seems sensible.

We cannot tell you the ‘right’ entry strategy for your students, but we hope this analysis is helpful as you finalise your thinking.


  1. Terri Ridings

    Can you clarify something for me, I was sure the Maths grades were Higher 9 to 4 with 3 for students just below 4 and Foundation 6 to 1 not 5 to 1 as you state.

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  2. Leon Wilson

    Foundation is definitely 5 to 1

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  3. sue

    My daughter is in the foundation maths, she wants a levels. I assume that she will never get a high enough grade in maths to do A levels?
    Can she retake maths next year at the higher level?

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  4. Taj

    Due to the changes and not enough material for teachers to use with students the Foundation tier is the safety net. Lack of model questions and grade boundaries has left many teachers stuck. Risking students into higher tier is suicidal.

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    • Sally williams

      Im very worried for my daughter. She has been entered in to higher level maths but only achieving a 4 in mocks. Surely foundation would be better for her. With only a months ti go im fearing the worst. Any helpful information greatly appreciated

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      • Cath Jadhav

        I suggest you speak to your daughter's school, as you can, about her tier of entry. Exam boards will usually accept tier changes without charge, up until about 21 April.

        On the higher tier, grade 4 is the lowest grade that the qualification is aimed at, but there is a small 'safety net' narrow grade 3 available. However, there is a risk that if she does not achieve enough marks for a 4 (or an allowed grade 3) that she will receive an ungraded result.

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  5. J.gunn

    My daughter and several other students were pulled from the higher tier maths exam yesterday and told they are doing the foundation. This caused great distress as many need a score of 6 to secure college places. They have worked for 2 years on her tier work will the foundation be much different and should they have been told sooner than the day before.

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  6. susan

    That grade c is so important to me and if I don't get it my whole dream will get shattered. but in foundation its impossible to get a c because c is the highest in foundation and the grade boundaries are to high. I have hope ...

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