August is not only a time for looking forward to the new academic year but also for reflecting on the year just gone and, on the 25th, poring over GCSE results.

When I was teaching, our first concern was ‘how did each student do?’ Then, we considered how different classes had performed, followed by comparing our school to others in the area. Finally we looked at the national picture and how we fitted into that.

Working in an exam board, the process is reversed. We start with the national picture and then start to break that down into sub-groups. We compare with previous years and check and re-check to ensure that grades are being awarded fairly. The aim is the same though; ensuring students get the results they deserve.

Last year, Ben Stafford wrote about GCSE maths results, commenting on how entry patterns were changing. The trend continues this year, though headline figures don’t tell the full story.

How our GCSE entry is changing

AQA has seen a significant overall rise in entries this year, the majority being from students aged 17 and over.

Percentage of total entry by age and tier 2016 (provisional based on 116,005 candidates)

Age 15 and under 16 17 18 19 and over TOTAL
Foundation 1.28 23.84 12.89 7.36 11.80 57.18
Higher 0.40 34.38 2.63 1.18 4.23 42.82
TOTAL 1.68 58.23 15.52 8.54 16.03 100

Some interesting points to consider:

  • 16 year olds’ entries make up a much smaller proportion of the total than in past years (2015: 63.7%, 2014: 70.4%).
  • The age profiles of the tiers are very different. 16 year olds are a minority (42%) in the Foundation tier but make up over 80% of the Higher entry.
  • The ratio of Foundation to Higher entries is around 3:2 for the whole entry but close to 2:3 for 16 year olds.

With these very different entry profiles, it is unsurprising that the outcomes for the different age groups look very different.

Cumulative percentage at each grade 2016 

Grade A* A B C D E F G
All 4 10.9 23.2 53.7 73.9 84.7 91.4 95.8
School based 16yo 6.7 17.9 37.3 69.9 82.4 88.3 92.8 96.5

(NB: for all 16 year olds entered with AQA, the overall A*-C cumulative percentage is 67.7%.)

It’s interesting to note that the full published national outcomes for AQA GCSE mathematics (4365) differ from the outcomes for 16 year old students in schools.

Grade boundaries this year

We saw an unusually low grade C boundary at Foundation tier last year. This year’s Foundation boundaries moved back towards 2014 levels with paper 2 proving to be much more accessible to students than in 2015. Although the boundaries have changed, the proportion of school based 16 year olds achieving grade C from the Foundation tier is exactly the same as last year at 36.5%.

Year C D E F G
2014 122 104 86 68 50
2015 108 90 72 55 38
2016 116 97 79 61 43

This increased accessibility was also seen on both Higher tier papers with higher boundaries set at grade A and grade C but little change in the grade outcomes for 16 year olds.

Year A* A B C D
2014 146 117 84 52 26
2015 145 116 85 55 27
2016 150 125 93 62 31
2016 outcomes for school based 16yo (cumulative %) 10.9 29.3 61.0 91.2 99.4
Change (2016-2015) +1.6 +0.2 +0.5 +1.2 +0.7

Although the grade C boundary is higher than in previous years, a greater proportion of students are reaching this mark, which is about 35% of the total marks in the paper. This is important, as it helps support the validity of the examination.

Turning to the new 9–1 graded GCSE, next year the only thing unchanged about the papers for both tiers is their titles. Greater demand, fewer marks targeted at lower grades and a more challenging starting point for the Higher tier, will all influence how students perform. However, having spoken to teachers across the country about the new GCSE, and reviewing the performance of this year’s cohort I am confident that we will be able to set robust grade boundaries that reflect the performance of students in this new GCSE.

Andrew Taylor, Head of Maths, AQA