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GCSE tiering decisions for summer 2019

Posted by: , Posted on: - Categories: A levels and GCSEs

Some of you will remember the announcement we made in August 2018, that we were allowing exam boards to award an exceptional grade 3-3 on the higher tier of GCSE combined science, along with a full-width safety net grade 4-3. We also said exam boards could award a full-width grade 3 in separate sciences and the 3 modern foreign languages (French, German and Spanish). These exceptional arrangements were made to avoid thousands of higher tier students being ungraded.

This week, we’ve written to all schools and colleges in England to emphasise that those arrangements were exceptional and that they will not be repeated in summer 2019. We want schools and colleges to reflect on their entry decisions in 2018 and think carefully about which tier to enter students for in summer 2019.

More generally, it’s worth bearing in mind the following points about tiered GCSE subjects:

  • There is nothing on certificates that details the tier of entry. So a grade 4 on foundation tier has the same value and is indistinguishable from a grade 4 gained on the higher tier.
  • Tiered exam papers have questions (usually around 20%) that are common to both foundation and higher tier. Exam boards use these to align standards between tiers, so it is no easier to get a grade on one tier than another.
  • There is a ‘safety net’ grade on the higher tier, for those who just miss a grade 4 (4-4 on combined science) but it is narrower than a normal grade (typically about half the number of marks). If a student misses that, they will be ungraded.
  • In general, a student whose target grade is a grade 4 or grade 5 should be entered for foundation tier. We know that some organisations recommend the opposite, but that puts students at risk of missing out on a grade (two grades for combined science).

Here’s a reminder of the GCSE subjects that are tiered, and what schools and colleges should bear in mind when thinking about summer 2019 entries.


We know that some schools and colleges were unsure about which tier to enter some students for when the reformed qualification was first taken in 2017. We also know that teachers were far more cautious, and generally entered more of their students for foundation tier than in previous years. When we saw the results in August 2017, this approach appeared to have paid off, as there were fewer ungraded higher tier students than in previous years.

Biology, chemistry, physics

These were first awarded in summer 2018 and, as in previous years, most students were entered for higher tier. However, if the exam boards had not widened the safety net grade 3, more students would have been ungraded. Schools which had a relatively large number of higher tier grade 3s in 2018, will want to reflect on whether more students should be entered for foundation tier in 2019, to avoid them being ungraded.

Combined science

This entirely new qualification was also first awarded in summer 2018. There were many changes from the legacy qualification which made tier entry decisions more challenging. Not least the fact that this is a double award rather than two separate GCSEs. Around a third of schools and colleges had some higher tier students who were awarded a grade 3-3 in 2018, but many more schools and colleges will have had students who benefited from the wider safety net grade 4-3.

Modern Foreign languages

French, German and Spanish were first awarded in 2018, but there are also additional languages being awarded for the first time in 2019, some of which are tiered for the first time. In French, German and Spanish in 2018 exam boards widened the safety net grade 3. Schools and colleges that did have a relatively large number of higher tier grade 3s in 2018, will want to reflect on whether more students should be entered for foundation tier in 2019, to avoid the potential for them to be ungraded. And those entering students for the languages that are new (including Italian, Polish, Portuguese and Turkish), will want to think carefully about the tier of entry, to minimise the number of higher students being ungraded.


This is also being awarded for the first time in summer 2019. We expect that maths departments will take a similar approach in statistics as in maths, but again, they should think about the bullet points above when making entries.

A final point – don’t worry if you make entries in February and then want to make changes. All the exam boards give you time to do this free of charge. Please consult your board for information on their deadlines.


If you would like to talk to Ofqual about any of the issues raised in this blog, please contact us at

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