Since GCSEs were introduced in 1986, many GCSE papers have been tiered. Tiering means different versions of an exam paper are sat by different students, giving each an appropriate level of challenge for them.
The most demanding paper provides access to the highest grades, while the lower paper is less challenging but restricts the grades available. Since 2015 and the move to the new 9-1 grading structure in England, the higher tier covers grades 9–4 (and has a ‘safety net’ of an allowed grade 3 for those whose scores fall just under the grade 4 boundary), and the foundation tier covers grades 5–1.
In Northern Ireland and Wales, the split is usually between a foundation tier paper offering grades (C-G) or a higher tier paper with grades (A*-D).
What are problems associated with tiering?
The use of tiering has reduced over the last decade because of concerns about equity issues. Grade restrictions on foundation and intermediate tiers mean that students’ attainments are capped, with repercussions for their future trajectories. Tiering also leads to inequalities in the curriculum – the foundation tier offers a restricted curriculum which limits students’ learning.
The other issue is how decisions are made about which students should be entered into which tier. This is a difficult task, and one which can be impacted by unconscious bias. Previous research conducted in England indicated that girls were disproportionately entered into the intermediate tier for mathematics because teachers’ perceived girls to be more anxious about their performance than boys and would struggle with the pressure of the higher paper.
Similar trends have been identified in relation to ethnicity, with Black Caribbean students less likely to be entered into higher tiers, even when prior attainment and other factors are accounted for.
What do students think?
We conducted research with GCSE students in Northern Ireland and Wales to understand their perspectives on tiering and whether it is in the best interests of all students – both in terms of wellbeing and academically. The majority of students in our study were supportive of tiering. However, we also found that those taking foundation, or a mixture of foundation and higher papers, were more likely to indicate they thought that tiering was unfair, and to report negative consequences of tiering. It was clear that allocations into different papers can impact students’ perceptions of themselves as learners, and their relationships with peers. One typical response from a student taking foundation tier was:
"I feel as if I am not as equal as everyone else as if I’m dumb and soon begin feeling depressed, many of my friends are doing higher tier and when I am around them I can’t help but feel stupid."
Student taking foundation tier.
Another noted that ‘tiers are like label (e.g.) foundation = you’re stupid, higher = you’re smart’. This indicates that tiers can have a labelling effect, with those taking higher papers having more positive images of themselves as learners. This reflects recent findings from AQi’s research on student attitudes towards GCSEs, which found that students achieving lower grades were less likely to report positive feelings around GCSEs and to feel their grades had value .
A particularly problematic finding from our research was that students often had a poor understanding of the tiers they were taking, as well as the grading restrictions on different tiers. There are clear misconceptions amongst students about the highest grades they can attain on tiers. 57% of students who told us they were taking the higher tier paper for Science subjects wrongly identified a C grade as the lowest they could attain on that paper, when they can in fact be awarded a D grade. 36% of those taking the foundation paper believed they could achieve a B grade or higher, when the highest they could achieve is a C grade.
What are the alternatives?
Tiering is not the only option. ‘Core plus extension’ involves the use of a ‘core’ paper which all candidates sit, and an additional extension paper which gives access to the highest grades. ‘Adjacent levels’ involves the provision of three different papers with no overlapping grades. Most candidates take two papers so that they cover the grade range appropriate for them.
Further advances in computer adaptive testing might mitigate these issues, allowing students to be presented with questions of a higher or lower level of difficulty depending on their answers to previous questions. This would mean that additional examinations would not be necessary, and teachers would not have to make advance predictions about children’s performance.
If tiering is retained, then we must ensure that students have a good level of understanding of how tiering works, including the grade boundaries. Decisions should also be made in collaboration with students and their families, to ensure they’re made in students’ best interests.
As part of AQi’s work, we are inviting people from a wide range of viewpoints to engage with us on a wide range of topics. We welcome alternative views to help stimulate discussion and ideas. The views of external contributors do not necessarily represent the views of AQi or AQA.
 Elwood, J. & Murphy, P. 2002. Tests, tiers and achievement: Gender and performance at 16 and 14 in England, European Journal of Education 37(4), 395–416.
 Barrance, R. & Elwood, J. (2018b) Young people’s views on choice and fairness through their experiences of curriculum as examination specifications at GCSE. Oxford Review of Education 44 (1), 19–36.
 Stobart, G., Elwood, J. & Quinlan, M. 1992. Gender bias in examinations: how equal are the opportunities? British Educational Research Journal 18(3), 261–276.
 Strand, S. 2012. The White British–Black Caribbean achievement gap: tests, tiers and teacher expectations. British Educational Research Journal 38(1), 75–101. Available at: https://dx.doi.org/10.1080/01411926.2010.526702.
 Lloyd, J. 2021. What next for GCSEs. The past, present and future of GCSEs. AQi: Assessment and Qualifications Insight. Available online: https://www.aqi.org.uk/publications/what-next-for-gcses/
 Burghes, D., Roddick, M. & Tapson, F. 1998. Report on a pilot project for a non-tiering GCSE in mathematics. Available online at: www.cimt.plymouth.ac.uk/papers/ntgcse.pdf
 Baird, J., Fearnley, A., Fowles, D., Jones, B., Morfidi, E. & While, D. 2001. Tiering in the GCSE: A study undertaken by AQA on behalf of the Joint Council for General Qualifications (London, Joint Council for General Qualifications).