Teachers' views on GCSE maths tier entries in 2018

In the run up to the first exams in the new GCSE maths, we knew that one of the issues worrying schools was choices about which tier to enter students for. In early 2017, we asked GCSE maths teachers about their tier entry choices for the first award of the new 9 to 1 graded qualifications. Ahead of this summer’s exams, we’ve repeated this exercise to find out what schools are planning in 2018.

The new qualifications are different to the old ones in several ways:

  • there is new, more demanding content
  • a greater focus on problem solving
  • the tiering arrangements have changed

There are still two tiers, but the top grade on the foundation tier is now a grade 5, which spans the old grade C and the bottom of a B. In the old A* to G qualifications, the highest grade on foundation tier was a C.

As a result of this change, the overlapping grades are higher than on the old qualifications. Students can achieve grades 5 to 3 on both tiers (although the grade 3 on higher tier is a ‘safety net’ grade for those who just miss a grade 4; the higher tier is not appropriate for those predicted a grade 3), and the exam papers include some questions that are the same on both tiers. This helps exam boards ensure that it is no more or less difficult to achieve the same grade on different tiers. There is more information about how the tier equating works in a previous blog.

Teachers told us last year that they were being cautious about their tier entry choices and were planning to enter more of their students to the foundation tier because of the more demanding content on both tiers. When we analysed the results data in August, we saw this change in the tier entries of the overall cohort. We concluded that schools’ choices seemed appropriate; there were fewer students than previous years who were ungraded on the higher tier and no students scored full marks on the foundation tier.

We have re-visited some of the same schools ahead of this year’s awards, and have also talked to others about their experiences last summer and their tier entry plans for this summer. Those we spoke to provided some interesting insight into their experiences, and the decisions that they are now making.

They told us that the results they received last summer were broadly as expected, and similar to their results in the old qualifications. This reassured them that they had made appropriate tier choices. They also said they carefully considered which tier was appropriate for each student, using information such as mock exams, and that they will continue to do so. They said that they would use their experiences of last summer to inform their future decisions. They also noted the importance of making sure that, as far as possible, the exams were a positive experience for their students, by not entering less able students to the higher tier where they might only be able to access a small number of questions.

Those we spoke to said they were more confident in making entry decisions for 2018, since they knew how their students had performed last year, and because they now have more resources, including last year’s summer exam papers and those from the November series.

Teachers acknowledge that their tier entry choices would depend on the ability of the students in any one year, but in general they were planning to enter a similar proportion of students to each tier as in summer 2017.

We will continue to monitor the proportion of entries by tier for GCSE maths and will publish this information in our provisional entries statistics that will be available before the summer.

While this was a relatively small-scale exercise, it is nevertheless reassuring that those schools we spoke to appear to be broadly satisfied with their tier entry choices and results last summer, and more confident in the approaches they will take this year.

Cath Jadhav
Associate Director, Standards and Comparability

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