This page covers GCSE Maths, the exam taken by the vast majority of state and independent school students in May/June of year 11 (when they are 16 or will shortly be 16). See other pages for iGCSE (International GCSE) an alternative to GCSE and also “Extra y11 exams” for tougher exams that are taken in addition to GCSE or iGCSE. Since 2010, no GCSEs in Maths have assessed course work; the GCSE is awarded entirely on Exam results.

The last chance to take the old Maths GCSEs graded A* to G was in June 2017. The only GCSE syllabus available is graded 9 to 1. These new “9-1” GCSEs are much tougher that the A* to G exams with more content than before and less predictable questions.

What Maths is in the “9-1” GCSEs? 

There is much more Maths in the reformed GCSE than in the old GCSE. I’m not proposing to list all the new stuff here. I will highlight what I see as the most important changes:

  • Many exam questions now involve several steps to achieve the answers. Students are not told what the steps are; they need to understand the Maths sufficiently well to work out how to break the question down into steps.
  • “Ratio and Proportion” are a separate section of the Maths syllabus themselves. Ratio and Proportion have always been part of GCSE, but these changes will mean that much more time is now spent on these topics
  • Fewer formulae are given to students in the exam. They need to remember many more of the formulae that they’ll need to solve problems.
  • Students are called upon to comment on methods used to solve problem.
  • There are many more problem-solving questions

Grades – Foundation and Higher Tiers

There are two separate tiers for Maths GCSE exams, Foundation and Higher.  Foundation is an easier examination than Higher.

There are 9 grades available – 9 is the best, 1 the worst and U (unclassified) remains possible for those unable to achieve 1. The Higher Paper will offers grade 4 to grade 9 and the Foundation Paper offers grade 1 to grade 5.

Someone taking the Higher exam should have been taught all the Maths in the Foundation syllabus plus the parts of the syllabus that are Higher only.

Foundation and Higher Tiers – Setting in Schools

Apart from very small independent schools, most schools in our area “set” students in Maths from year 7 or year 8 onwards. This means that the entire year group will be split up into separate classes based on their performance at Maths. So, a state comprehensive school with, say, 120 students in year 8 might split them up as follows:

  • Top Set – 30 students
  • Set 2 – 30 students
  • Set 3 – 25 students
  • Set 4 – 20 students
  • Set 5 – 15 students.

Note that the less able the student, the better the teacher-pupil ratio. Despite this, as a parent, you should want your son or daughter to be in the highest set that he or she is comfortable with – A lot more learning takes place in the higher sets than the lower sets, despite the worse teacher-pupil ratio.

In big schools with 150 or more in a year, it is quite common for there to be 2 top sets, 2 second sets etc.

Any school should be open to moving students between sets; schools will consider this formally at the end of each school year and often more frequently (especially for year 7s). Especially in bigger schools, the most important criterion for a move will be the marks achieved in end-of-term tests or similar. Remember though – for one child to move up a set, another needs to move down.

Once the school starts to actually teach the GCSE syllabus (usually September in year 10, but earlier for some schools in our area) the setting becomes very important. The lowest sets will only be taught the Foundation Syllabus so moving between sets becomes very difficult. Once a student finishes year 9 with a poor test result it can be almost impossible in some schools to be taught Maths which will give him or her better than a grade 4.

Having consistently good results in year 9 will ensure that your son or daughter gets into the best possible set for GCSEs. This can be helped by a well-timed letter or email to the head of the Maths department pointing out, for example, that your son or daughter has improved in Maths recently and asking for an upgrade to a higher set.

Please note the possible confusion of the work “Higher” – the two tiers of the English GCSE Maths “Foundation” and “Higher” have nothing to do with the Scottish “Higher” exams for 17-year-olds.


Students who don’t achieve the desired grade in May/June can re-sit the Maths GCSE exam in November.  Maths and English Language are the only 2 subjects with resits in November; other subjects will only be examined once per year in May/June.



Exam boards

The following boards offer the “9-1” GCSE from May/June 2017.

  • AQA
  • Edexcel
  • OCR also known as “Oxford Cambridge and RSA”
  • WJEC also known as “The Welsh Board”. This board is part way through re-branding itself as Eduqas

The Reforms apply to England, neither to Wales nor Northern Ireland.

I’ve never come across a school in our area using the WJEC papers.

Martin Procter – June 2019

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