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More than half a million GCSE students are receiving their results, amid changes meaning a new numerical grading system and tougher exams in England.
More than 10,000 candidates are set to get the top grade 9 in each of the three new O-level style GCSE subjects; English, English literature and maths.
The percentage of passes will be kept the same as under the old system, in the interest of fairness.
But some experts say the new exams are the toughest since the late 1980s.
There has been a particular focus on maths GCSE, which was found to be more demanding, with many students posting concerns online about the exam after they sat it.
Exam boards insist that standards have been held steady, despite complaints by some students and teachers about a lack of textbooks and practice papers.
Others have complained the new 9 to 1 grading system would be confusing for parents, admissions tutors and employers.
Under this system, an A is equivalent to a 7 while a C is anchored at the bottom of a grade 4.
The reason for introducing three bands – 7 to 9 – instead of just A* and A at the top end – was to give more detail about the highest-achieving candidates.
This year’s GCSE candidates in England, about 90% overall, are the first to sit the exams after the changes pushed by former Education Secretary Michael Gove.
As well as being numerically graded, the two core subjects feature tougher content and exam questions.
In each GCSE, the whole qualification is tested at the end in final exams. The other subjects will follow.
This year also marks a divergence in qualifications between the nations, with candidates in England, Wales and Northern Ireland now all studying different exams.
In Wales, exams in English, Welsh and maths (six GCSEs in total) have also been toughened, but the qualification is still taken in units. New GCSEs in other subjects are being phased in.
In Northern Ireland, pupils are generally sitting old-style GCSEs in all subjects this year, but changes are planned. Pupils in Scotland already sit a completely different set of exams.
Sally Collier, chief regulator at England’s exams watchdog, said the results reflected “years of careful planning”.
She said the new qualifications had allowed students “to better demonstrate their abilities” and had “better prepared them for further study, if that is their choice”.
“In turn, the new 9 to 1 grade system signals to employers and others that this year’s students have studied new, more challenging content, and better differentiates between their achievements.”
She added that the regulator had required exam boards to use the same system of comparable outcomes where data on prior attainment is fed into the national picture to ensure this first set of students sitting the exams is not disadvantaged.
“If a student receives a grade 7 today, they could have expected to have received a grade A last year. And if they get a grade 4, they could have expected to get a grade C in 2016,” Ms Collier said.
However, the Department for Education has introduced two levels of passes; a “standard pass” at grade 4 and a “strong pass” at grade 5.
The latter would be used to hold schools to account in performance tables.
But some, such as the Institute of Directors, think that effectively having two pass marks will be confusing, and warned that some employers may see the new numbering system as “gibberish”.
Secondary school heads have expressed concern about increased stress and anxiety among pupils taking these exams and that is expected to intensify next year.
Association of School and College Leaders general secretary Geoff Baron said: “The new GCSEs are more challenging, and there are more papers, and this is putting severe pressure on young people.
“We support a robust qualification system, but it has to be balanced against the welfare of young people, and we are not sure the balance in the new system is correct.”
His organisation will be carrying out a “post-mortem” on the results and exams experience with Ofqual after the results are out.
It also pledged to talk to the Department for Education about how the impact of these much tougher exams on young people can be mitigated.
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