Under major new reforms set to be introduced this August, pupils will no longer receive traditional A*- G grades. Instead, exams will be marked from 9-1, with 9 the highest result.
Supporters of the scheme have argued that the move will allow more differentiation between students.
But Geoff Barton, the next general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), told the Press Association that many teachers and students are still in the dark over what will be considered a “good” pass.
According to Barton, who becomes ASCL leader in April, a lack of clarity is leading pupils to doubt whether they will get into sixth form and consider other options instead.
“The confusion is caused by mixed messages from the government and a lack of clear communication,” he said.
“On one hand, schools are going to be judged on the number of pupils who achieve a grade 5 or better in English and maths and in the EBacc (English Baccalaureate).
“On the other hand, the government says that grade 4 is enough for pupils to progress to the next stage of their education if sixth forms and colleges decide it ‘meets their requirements’.”
From 2019, pupils who don’t achieve a grade 5 in English and maths will have to resit the exam in sixth-form or college.
Barton added: “These distinctions are unnecessarily complex and the government has not communicated them at all well.
“We are likely to end up with a wide variation in entry requirements and uncertainty for young people.
“We are calling on the government for greater clarity.”
Barton, head of King Edward VI School in Suffolk, said he was already seeing the effects of the changes, with provisional numbers planning to join the sixth form in autumn much lower than expected.
“We don’t understand why it is, but when we talk to a few of them, they say ‘well, it might be because I’m going to get a grade 4 instead of a grade 5 and I won’t be able to get in’,” Barton said.
This may be partly because teachers cannot be sure what pupils will need to get a grade 5, so students may consider other options to going into the sixth-form on the basis they will not get the grade.
A 10% drop in students at his school would mean £150,000 less in funding to spend on students, he said.
Under current guidelines, a GCSE C grade is considered a “good” pass, with most sixth forms and colleges asking for this grade in their entry requirements.
Students who do not achieve this grade in English and maths have to retake these exams.
Despite the criticism, a Department for Education spokesperson said the GCSE reforms will create “gold-standard qualifications”.
“We will of course continue to engage with all interested parties to ensure the changes are understood ahead of them coming into effect later this year,” the spokesperson said.