How getting a 9 in GCSE Maths is much harder than getting an A*

More challenging than getting an A*

Compared with a getting an A* on the old GCSE marking scheme, getting a top grade 9 in the new format is significantly more difficult. Grade 9 has been introduced to help identify only the highest achieving learners. While this was the initial goal of the A* in the previous examination format, in recent years the number of pupils achieving an A* has increased. In academically successful schools this has meant that it has been common for quite a large number of high achieving students to gain A*s in all their GCSE examinations.

This situation will no longer be the case. Recently, Tim Leunig, chief scientific adviser to the Department for Education, guessed that around 2 pupils (yes 2!) would achieve straight 9s in all their subjects. We’ll find out in August if he was right, but it is clear that getting into the top bracket of pupils is much more difficult than it used to be. In hand with this we expect continued strong demand for private maths tuition in London and throughout the UK to try to help pupils achieve the highest grades.

While trying to achieve Grade 9 at GCSE maths is something to be aimed for, expectations management for pupils and parents alike is important. For maths we expect that roughly the top 4% of pupils will be awarded grade 9. Remember that a grade 8 still a very respectable score.

About the new 1-9 grading scale

One of the main changes to the new GCSEs being taken for first time in 2017 is the change of the grading scale to 9 to 1 from A* to G. 9 is the highest grade achievable and 1 is the lowest.

Grades 7, 8 and 9 are broadly equivalent to an A or A*

Grades 4, 5 and 6 are equivalent to a C or B

Grade 3 is equivalent to a D

Grades 1 and 2 are equivalent to an G, F and E

A U remains as ungraded

GCSE Mathematics will continue to have two tiers (Foundation and Higher) although there are some changes in the range of grades in each tier. For example the Foundation tier goes up to Grade 5 (high C/low B in old money) while the Higher tier covers from Grade 4 and up (Grade C and above on the old scale). What does that mean in practice? Well, it means that the easiest questions on the Higher tier are a bit more challenging than previously was the case. It also means that a pupil taking the new GCSE could be entered into a different tier than a pupil of the same ability who took the old GCSE maths. Try explaining that to siblings of similar abilities!

As noted above, Grade 9 is there to identify only the highest performers given that so many students were achieving the old A*. We don’t know officially the exact percentage of pupils that will be awarded a 9 in GCSE Maths. What we do know is that about 20% of all GCSE grades of grade 7 across all subjects and above will be awarded grade 9. You can find more details on the Ofqual website here.

Longer Exams

Students on the new maths GCSE (9-1) will have to sit a total of 4.5 hours of examinations, an increase from before when most students spent between 3 to 4 hours in the examination hall. The increase is due to the fact that there is now no coursework assessed.

The main exam boards have split this into three papers of 1.5 hours each. One of these exams is a non-calculator paper.

Subject Content

Whatever exam board you are taking the subject content taught is the same and is taken from the Department for Education’s Mathematics GCSE subject content and assessment objectives document which you can view here.

Most topics that were in the old GCSE syllabus can be found in the new GCSE (9-1) syllabus. There are, though, a number of additions at both the Foundation and Higher tiers. Venn diagrams, more trigonometry and circle equations are now included with the latter only on the Higher tier. Some topics that were only previously found on the Higher tier syllabus will now also be taught in the Foundation tier. You can see all the content changes in the tables below.

New Foundation Tier Topics
Index laws: zero and negative powers (numeric and algebraic)
Standard form
Compound interest and reverse percentages
Direct and indirect proportion (numeric and algebraic)
Expand the product of two linear expressions
Factorise quadratic expressions in the form x2
+ bx + c
Solve linear/linear simultaneous equations
Solve quadratic equations by factorisation
Plot cubic and reciprocal graphs, recognise quadratic and cubic graphs
Trigonometric ratios in 2D right-angled triangles
Fractional scale enlargements in transformations
Lengths of arcs and areas of sectors of circles
Mensuration problems
Vectors (except geometric problems/proofs)
Tree diagrams

New Topics for Both Tiers
Use inequality notation to specify simple error intervals
Identify and interpret roots, intercepts, turning points of quadratic functions
graphically; deduce roots algebraically
Fibonacci type sequences, quadratic sequences, geometric progressions
Relate ratios to linear functions
Interpret the gradient of a straight line graph as a rate of change
Know the exact values of sin θ and cos θ for θ = 0°, 30°, 45°, 60° and 90°; know
the exact value of tan θ for θ = 0°, 30°, 45° and 60°

Topics New to the Higher Tier
Expand the products of more than two binomials
Interpret the reverse process as the ‘inverse function’; interpret the succession of
two functions as a ‘composite function’ (using formal function notation)
Deduce turning points by completing the square
Calculate or estimate gradients of graphs and areas under graphs, and interpret
results in real-life cases (not including calculus)
Simple geometric progressions including surds, and other sequences
Deduce expressions to calculate the nth term of quadratic sequences
Calculate and interpret conditional probabilities through Venn diagrams

Looking at the Higher tier we can see that a completely new topic area has been added which is Ratio, Proportion and Rates of Change. Meanwhile Algebra makes up a greater proportion of the course than previously accounting for some 30%. In contrast, the proportion of Statistics and Probability has been lowered and now makes up just 15%. If you want to get a grade 9 you’ll need to excel across all areas but knowing your algebra is of prime importance.


Maths GCSE Higher Tier Topics

Maths GCSE Higher Tier Topics from Edexcel


There are three Assessment Objectives in the new exams. These objectives are as follows:

AO1: Use and apply standard techniques

AO2: Reason, interpret and communicate mathematically

AO3: Solve problems within maths and within other contexts

Compared with the previous exam regime there is now a greater emphasis on problem solving which requires students to have a deeper understanding of how to apply maths. This is one clear area that will be used to separate out those students deserving of a 9 grade.

As you can see from the table provided by the AQA examination board below Higher tier students face a higher weighting for both problem solving as well as reasoning and interpretation compared with students on the Foundation tier.


Maths Assessment Objectives

Assessment Objectives Maths: AQA



If you have children who have already sailed through their GCSE maths and were awarded an A* that’s great. If they have younger sisters or brothers who are going to be taking the new 9-1 GCSE maths this year or in future years then they will find it significantly more difficult to achieve the highest award.

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