One to one maths interventions built for KS4 success

Weekly online one to one GCSE maths revision lessons now available.

Learn more

GCSE Grade Boundaries 2021: The New Grading System Explained

GCSE grade boundaries began to change in 2017. We moved from the familiar A*-G to the numerical system of 9-1. Maths, English language and English literature were the first subjects to move over to this new grading system, with more subjects changing over in 2018 and the remaining subjects by 2020.

In this post, we will look at the new grading system. We will discuss grade boundaries and how they are set, the proportions of students achieving different overall grades and how the new grades compare to the old grades.

What’s the difference between the new and old grades and how do they compare?

The new grading system runs from 9-1, with 1 being the lowest grade and 9 being the highest grade. The new system is designed to allow more differentiation among the higher grades, with grades 4-6 covering what was grades B and C and grades 7-9 covering what was grades A and A*. Grade 9 is considered to be higher than an A* and roughly the top 20% of students who achieve a grade 7 or above will achieve a grade 9.

GCSE grade boundaries grade structures


  • 9 = High A* 
  • 8 = Low A* or high A grade
  • 7 = Low A grade
  • 6 = High B grade
  • 5 = Low B or high C grade
  • 4 = Low C grade
  • 3 = D or high E grade
  • 2 = Low E or high F grade
  • 1 = Low F or G grade
  • U = U

In order to ensure continuity and fairness, the system has been designed so that the bottom of grade 1 aligns with the bottom of grade G, the bottom of grade 4 aligns with the bottom of grade C and the bottom of grade 7 aligns with the bottom of grade A.

This means that any student who would have achieved at least a grade C, for example, would now achieve at least a grade 4 and this makes it easier for educational establishments and employers to draw comparisons between the old and new grades. 

Prior to the system changing, a grade C was considered a pass at GCSE. This translates to a grade 4 in the new system, which is considered a ‘standard pass’. It is expected that, where a grade C has previously been accepted as an entry requirement into further education or employment, a grade 4 would now be accepted. 

Grade 5 has been labelled a ‘good pass’ and it is worth noting that schools will be held to account for the percentage of students achieving grade 5 or higher.

In terms of GCSE exam papers, the new foundation paper will cover the grading scale 1-5 and the new higher paper will cover the grading scale 3-9.

Set of 25 Printable GCSE Maths Questions

Try these challenging GCSE maths questions with your students in class. They all include answers on a separate page and are organised by difficulty!

Why have they changed the GCSE grades?

GCSEs in England have been reformed. All courses are now linear, meaning that they are examined at the end of the course rather than in modules throughout the course. They also contain new and more demanding content, with the aim being to bring English standards up to match those in other high performing countries.

Changing the grading system is a clear way of indicating that the GCSE courses have changed. It is also hoped that the new system will give sixth forms, colleges, universities and employers a better idea of what level someone is working at. There is also the ability to micro-distinguish between the various grades, such as 7, 8 and 9.

What are the GCSE grade boundaries?

The GCSE grade boundaries tell us the number of raw marks that a student is required to achieve in order to receive a certain grade. The grade boundaries are different for each subject and vary slightly each year in order to ensure the system is fair for students.

Each year the grade boundaries are set by senior examiners and these grade boundaries will determine whether a student achieves a grade 1, 2, 3, … etc.

Fractions decimals percentages lesson support slide
Breaking down an exam-style question in a Third Space Learning online revision lesson

How are the GCSE grade boundaries worked out?

Exam boards strive to ensure that it is no easier or harder to achieve a particular grade from one year to the next. This means that if one year’s paper is harder than a previous year’s paper, the grade boundaries are lowered to reflect this, depending on maximum marks and minimum marks. This principle is called Comparable Outcomes.

Grade boundaries for a subject are decided after the exams have been sat and all of the marking has been completed.

Senior examiners take into account a number of factors when deciding on grade boundaries.

These include:

  • Feedback from examiners about the particular paper;
  • Question papers from previous years;
  • Data about the previous achievements of the cohort of students taking the exam;
  • Previous statistics. 

Examiners look especially carefully at the work of students around the grade boundaries to decide where the grade boundaries should be set. 

When are the GCSE grade boundaries released?

Grade boundaries are released on GCSE results day. Much like A Levels, they used to be released prior to results day, but this was changed to try and reduce stress amongst students who were trying to predict their grades. The grade boundaries from previous years can be found on the websites of each exam board.

What were the GCSE grade boundaries in 2019?

Grade boundaries are set by each exam board based on the papers they have set. We are going to look at the grade boundaries in maths for each exam board for 2019. This is currently our best reference year since students did not sit exams in 2020 and 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic and GCSE grades were decided by exam centres.

Edexcel mathematics grade boundaries


AQA mathematics grade boundaries


OCR mathematics grade boundaries


WJEC mathematics grade boundaries


All marks are out of 240, except OCR where the marks are out of 300. For comparison, the numbers in brackets for OCR represent the scaled grade boundary had it been out of 240.

Ofqual rules regarding design of exam papers

As part of the redesigned maths course, Ofqual set some rules regarding the design of exam papers to ensure exam boards are consistent in the way they are setting their papers.

These rules state that:

  • In a higher tier paper, half of the marks should be targeted at grades 9, 8 and 7 and the other half of the marks should be targeted at grades 6, 5 and 4.
  • In a foundation tier paper, half of the marks should be targeted at grades 5, 4 and the top of grade 3 and the other half of the marks should be targeted at the bottom of grade 3 and grades 2 and 1.

When setting these rules, it was Ofqual’s aim to ensure that there is sufficient challenge across the ability range. It does mean that higher papers now contain more demanding questions and that only around 20% of the questions on the paper are designed for grade 4. This helps to explain the low grade boundaries for a grade 4 on higher papers.

What proportion of students achieve each GCSE grade?

This will vary between different year groups and different subjects. The grade boundaries are not decided so that a certain proportion achieve each grade but by the difficulty of the paper and the prior data of the cohort taking the paper.

We can, however, look at data from previous years to give us an idea of the proportion who achieve each grade.

In 2019, for example, the following percentages of students achieved each grade:


You can see from the table that in 2019, 59.6% of those who sat GCSE maths received a grade 9-4. You can also see that overall, 67% of the GCSE grades awarded across all subjects were grade 9-4s. The percentage of students achieving grades 9-4 in maths is lower than the percentage receiving grades 9-4 across all subjects.

The results for GCSE English language are similar to those for maths, and one factor in this could be that every student has to take maths and English, whereas other subjects are chosen by the student.

Centre assessed grades in 2020 and 2021

It is interesting to compare the results in 2018 and 2019 to those in 2020 and 2021 when results were decided by teacher assessment.

The following chart shows the proportion of students achieving each grade in maths over the years 2018-2021:

We can see that in 2020 and 2021 the percentages achieving the lower grades noticeably decreased whilst the percentages achieving the higher grades increased. This is particularly noticeable in the percentage achieving grades 9-4.

Examining previous data, we can see that this is an anomaly due to the COVID-19 pandemic and is one that does not just affect the maths results.

The following table shows the percentages gaining 9-4, or the equivalent A*-C, over the past 8 years:

Maths A*-C or 9-4Total A*-C or 9-4

The percentages remained fairly consistent, even during the crossover to the new grading system, until 2020.

In fact, maths was one of the subjects that was affected least. If we look at computer science, for example, the percentage achieving 9-4 jumped from 62.6% in 2018 to 80.1% in 2020.

What about other GCSE subjects?

In general, the proportions achieving each grade in each subject does vary. Let’s have a look at the proportion achieving 9-4 in 2019 across a few subjects:

English language61.8%
Physical education71.8%
Religious studies72.3%
Double award science55.4%

Maths and English both sit at around 60%, with other subjects coming in at just above 70%. It is worth considering the situation with science. In general, higher ability students are entered for separate sciences, whilst lower ability students are entered for double or single award science. This could explain the differences between the grades awarded in these subjects.

Some of the subjects with the highest grade boundaries are modern foreign languages such as Urdu, Punjabi and Polish. This is likely because those taking these GCSEs are native speakers of the languages in question. 89.9% of those taking modern foreign languages in 2019 received a grade 9-4. 

Grading in Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland

The grading system is different in Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland. Wales reformed their GCSEs in 2015 but still use the A*-G grading system. Northern Ireland has introduced a new grade, C*, and so now also has a 9 point grading system. Students taking exams under English exam boards will receive grades 9-1. Scotland has a separate exam system, Scottish Highers. Scottish National 5 certificates grade A to C are equivalent to GCSEs grade 4 to 9.

Further reading:
Read more:

Do you have students who need extra support in maths?
Every week Third Space Learning’s maths specialist tutors support thousands of students across hundreds of schools with weekly online 1-to-1 lessons and maths interventions designed to plug gaps and boost progress.

Since 2013 we’ve helped over 90,000 primary and secondary students become more confident, able mathematicians. Find out more about our GCSE Maths Revision Programme or request a personalised quote for your school to speak to us about your school’s needs and how we can help.

Our online tuition for maths programme provides every child with their own professional one to one maths tutor

Beki Christian
Beki Christian
Maths Teacher and Author
Beki has 11 years experience teaching secondary Maths. She is currently working as a Maths tutor as well as writing resources and blog posts for Third Space Learning.
Downloadable resource

Set of 25 Printable GCSE Maths Questions

Try these challenging GCSE maths questions with your students in class. They all include answers on a separate page and are organised by difficulty!

Download Free Now!

Set of 25 Printable GCSE Maths Questions

Downloadable resource

Try these challenging GCSE maths questions with your students in class. They all include answers on a separate page and are organised by difficulty!

Download Free Now!