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GCSE Exam Tiers

Updated: Apr 4, 2019

By Sumeyye Cimentepe, Maths Tutor, HSC Medway

Preparing for exams is a year-round job. At this time of year, teachers of maths, sciences and foreign languages now finalising about which tier to enter their students. The final date to change tiering is April 21 for teachers.

The new tiers cover a different grade range than the old ones did.

As a Maths tutor in Medway, I am usually asked around this time of the year if students were placed to sit for the right tier in GCSEs. Students at our centre work on many exam practice questions throughout the year and advising is not hard by their progress. However, I advise my new students to make the decision by Mock Exams. If they have ever achieved a grade 5 then higher tier can be an option and if they were taught a higher course in KS4. If a student never achieved a grade 5, I usually advice foundation tier is the right choice.

In new 9-1 grading system, subject content is very broad and challenging in higher tier. If a student never studied higher content at school, it is very challenging to be well prepared and there is a risk of underachieving with higher content topics, as grade boundaries are not low.

If a student has changed to do higher in April, I personally advice learning a few predictable topics will help to secure passing. We help students at our Medway centre to get ready in short period of time with intensive tutoring sessions. Tutoring sessions with exam practice help improve the confidence.

In Combined Science, most students are placed in Higher tier when they achieve a grade 4 and above. Combined Science Higher has broad subject content as Maths, however students are usually able to answer questions that are similar in foundation tier. Since grade boundaries are low in higher tier, there is only a minor risk of underachieving.

It is very important that students practice exam questions to understand marking criteria in Science. During Science tutoring sessions we prepare personalised lessons to cover predictable topics and help students improve their response for long answer questions at HSC Medway.

I also found the article By Dale Bassett is head of curriculum strategy at exam board AQA useful:

"Foundation Or Higher: Which Is Right For Your Students?

In summer 2017, and again in 2018, we generally saw maths teachers choosing the right tiers for their students, with very few students "falling off" the higher tier without a grade.

However, in 2018, all sciences and modern foreign language subjects were also tiered and we saw a very different picture of student outcomes on the higher tier for these subjects.

Due to the challenge of choosing tiers in the new qualifications, more students than expected underperformed on the higher tier in sciences and languages, and would have fallen off without a grade.

How to make the right tiering decisions?

Looking at common exam questions is often the best way to decide on the right tier.

At least 20 per cent of questions are common to both tiers, so when students sit the sample papers, teachers look closely at how they do on those common questions – if they can’t answer many of them, they’re unlikely to have a good experience of the higher tier and should probably be entered for foundation.”



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