Just a small percentage of GCSE students are expected to receive top grades in maths and English exams this year, as a new grading system is rolled out for the first time.
Under major government reforms in England to make GCSEs more challenging, traditional A* to G grades have been scrapped in favour of a new numbered system, with 9 the highest and 1 the lowest grade.
While students will only receive numbered grades for English language, literature and maths this year, letter grades will be completely phased out by 2020.
According to calculations by the Press Association, out of the hundreds of thousand of pupils in England entered for English language and maths exams, just 10,700 and 16,100 will achieve a 9 grade in each of the respective subjects.
Estimates suggest that no more than half of A* students from last year’s cohort would achieve a 9 grade in the new exams.
While 4% of 16-year-olds achieved an A* in English language last year, along with 7% in maths, Ofqual has estimated that just 2% and 3% would gain 9 grades in the respective subjects this year.
This is the result of deliberate changes by the government to extend the grading system, thereby allowing greater differentiation between the brightest students.
But school leaders have warned that GCSE reforms are causing increased stress and anxiety for pupils amid a “rising tide of mental health issues among young people”, and that this was likely to intensify as more subjects switch to the new system.
Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) general secretary Geoff Barton, said: “The new GCSEs are more challenging, and there are more papers, and this is putting severe pressure on young people.
“We support a robust qualification system, but it has to be balanced against the welfare of young people, and we are not sure the balance in the new system is correct.”
In April, a teen’s passionate post about how the new reforms were pushing students to the edge went viral, with 16-year-old Emma Jameson writing that pupils were under so much pressure they were “crying in the toilets” and “breaking in down in the middle of lessons”.
According to Jameson, she had been expected to memorise two books, a play and 15 poems for her English literature exam, while the new GCSE maths course covered A Level material.
Writing three weeks before exams began, she said: “I see a group of kids slumped over desks with books closed and minds shut off to the work as well; we’re all exhausted. There is a healthy amount of challenge and stress but honestly I find this ridiculous.”
But Sally Collier, chief regulator of exams watchdog Ofqual, said that today’s GCSE results reflect “years of careful planning”.
“We have used the same tried and tested principle of comparable outcomes, as in previous years, to ensure that this first cohort of students is not disadvantaged,” she said.
“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.”
Schools minister Nick Gibb added: “A new grading system was needed to distinguish between the old and the new reformed GCSEs.
“The new grading system also provides stretch for the highest performers by showing greater distinction between the top marks.”
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