The first exams for the new Maths GCSE are approaching and with them comes the big decision of which tier to enter your students into – Higher or Foundation?

We’ve discussed the changes to the content of the new GCSE and to the assessment objectives before, but how do these changes affect our entries?

This is something we’ve been discussing in my department – and during #mathschat – a lot recently.

Ofqual guidance on the new 9-1 grading structure. Source: Ofqual.

When you have pupils who are clearly ready for the Higher tier, or clearly ready for Foundation, that’s easy.

But what about those pupils who would have been only just in the Higher tier or not quite Higher under the ‘old regime’? How do we know where to enter these ‘borderline’ students with the new GCSE?

The grades available to students entered for Foundation and Higher tiers (source: AQA). The Higher tier targets grades 4 to 9, although grade 3 can also be awarded.

Do you enter them for the Higher tier, giving them the opportunity to achieve a better grade than they could in Foundation, but risk them facing an exam paper they struggle to access, and losing out on marks because they panic?

Or do you enter them for Foundation, where you know they can capture marks more securely but cap their potential achievement in the process?

There are many factors influencing this decision – for which, the key goal is that each pupil has the best possible chance of performing to the best of their abilities.

The recent, lively #mathschat on this topic threw up some really interesting observations.

  1. It seemed fairly universal that the proportion of Foundation entries will be increasing from last year. Many #mathschat commenters said they were tipping the balance more towards Foundation this year.
  2. The students who would have been considered ‘safe Cs’ are generally being entered for Higher, while many who would have been on the C/D borderline are generally being entered for Foundation. And with the new grading structure, where the borderline lies is less clear than it was before.
  3. There is lots of Question Level Analysis (QLA) going on. Teachers are trying to find out which types of questions students are performing well at, and using this to help inform which tier to choose.
  4. There was lots of discussion over how grades are shared across the two tiers and within them. (The Ofqual requirement is that the first half of the Foundation tier papers target grades 1 to 3 and the second half, grades 3 to 5. The questions on the Higher tier target grade 4 upwards, with half them focused on grades 7 to 9.)


How do you choose which tier to enter students into? Image source: AQA

One question struck me during #mathschat: if you are entering your borderline students for foundation to avoid risk, what are the risks that you are avoiding?

  • Not getting as many students as possible over a grade 4 or 5?
  • Students not being able to reach their full potential?
  • Students taking exams that they will not be able to fully access
  • Students taking exams where they do not show any positive achievement and may end up ungraded?
  • The increased emphasis on certain topics at Higher, for example less number work and more algebra?
  • The new, ‘trickier’ Higher topics such as solving inequalities with set notation, or two simultaneous equations in two variables?
  • The increased emphasis on AO2 (reason and communicate) and AO3 (solve problems) marks over AO1 (recall and use) at Higher?

It’s clear from all this that the choosing the right tier for your students is no easy task.

It’s been really interesting to hear other peoples’ concerns and considerations, and whichever tier you choose, I wish your pupils the very best of luck.