GCSE reforms begin – and physics will be next

The turn of GCSE students to receive their exam results came round on 24 August, and the introduction of the new 9-1 system in maths and English. In this blog, we take a closer look at the GCSE results in England, Wales and Northern Ireland.

This is the last year with the A*–G grading for the sciences as students are now preparing to take the reformed exams ready to be graded with the new 9-1 system from summer 2018. This is important to bear in mind as we observe some slightly unusual things in the GCSE science data.

At GCSE level, students tend to study core and additional science or triple science, where they receive a qualification in each of the science subjects (some students may do different qualifications, such as the international baccalaureate). This blog will delve into the entries and results for the core, additional and triple science qualifications with data from the Joint Council for Qualifications.

Since 2012, students have been able to take science in the first year of their GCSEs, followed by additional science in the second year. This led to a sharp increase in entries in 2012 due to the addition of 15-year-olds. In 2014 the number of entries reduced and levelled out once again. This might be as a result of fewer students sitting exams at the end of year 10 because a new rule meant only the first sitting would count towards the school’s league table results. The drop in entries in 2017 is because schools have chosen not to enter students for science as they are waiting to take the reformed qualification next year instead.

The proportion of the cohort for science, additional science and physics has increased as the absolute number of entries has gone down due to the 9-1 entries to maths and English being counted separately. Students who take physics also tend to take biology and chemistry, so the entries for those are similar to physics. As the reforms continue we will wait and see how this affects entries to the sciences at GCSE.

The impact of the reforms to English and maths on entries as a proportion of total entrants can be better observed when we separate entries in England from Northern Ireland and Wales. In Wales and Northern Ireland the 9-1 grading system in maths and English has not been introduced, so the slight dip in the proportion of entrants is perhaps more reflective of what we would have seen in England if the majority of the maths and English entries were not removed.

Turning to attainment, 41.9% of entrants to GCSE physics achieved an A* or A grade in 2017. 90.8% achieved a C grade or above. The proportion of students achieving an A or A* grade in core and additional science is much lower (4.5% for science and 9.1% for additional science). The pass rate is also lower – with 45% of boys receiving a C or above in science and 51% of girls.

When looking at the differences between boys and girls, a higher proportion of girls achieve an A or A* grade in science and additional science than boys, but a slightly higher proportion of boys achieved an A or A* in physics. Looking at the proportion achieving a C grade or above, girls outperformed boys in science, additional science and physics in 2017.

The fun starts next year when we will have a new grade structure to get our teeth stuck into in a new era for GCSEs. In the meantime, well done to everyone who received their results this time around – we look forward to seeing some of these students progress to A-level and beyond.

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Florence Greatrix

Florence Greatrix

Florence is an IOP policy officer looking at issues relating to the UK leaving the EU. She came to the Institute from the RSC and has an MSc in oceanography from Southampton
Florence Greatrix


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