WISERD GCSE Series – Part 3: Is tiering fair for all students?

Having previously looked at the different types of GCSE courses and how they are assessed, in the third and final blog of this series, Dr Rhian Barrance outlines recent research on tiering and considers how fair it is for different groups of students.


Tiering has been used for GCSEs since they were introduced in 1986. Currently, for most subjects  tiered at GCSE, there are two tiers of exam paper – the higher tier, which provides students with access to A*-D/E grades, and the foundation tier, which is designed to be less challenging than the higher paper but only allows students to achieve grades in the ranges of C-G.

The introduction of tiering raised issues of fairness from the start. There were concerns about the comparability of overlapping grades on examination papers (eg, does a C grade on a foundation paper really equate to a C grade on higher tier?) and the possibility that students taking foundation papers could be disadvantaged in cases where they could potentially attain a grade higher than a C.

These concerns have led to a reduction in the use of tiering across England, Northern Ireland and Wales since 2012, although it is still used for Science and Mathematics papers across the three countries.

Despite these changes, and the possible repercussions for students’ futures of being entered into the ‘wrong tier’, there has been very little research conducted on students’ views and experiences of tiering. In order to identify students’ perspectives in Northern Ireland (NI) and Wales, as part of my doctoral research at Queen’s University Belfast, 1,600 students were surveyed and 20 focus groups were conducted.

The research found that the majority of students were supportive of tiering – with around 85% in both regions agreeing that it should be retained. Students tended to approve of tiering because it allows everyone to sit the examinations at their own level. In Wales, a typical response was expressed by a student who stated that tiers ‘allow people who are unable to do the higher grade work a chance to do well in their exam (Female student, Wales).

However, despite the generally positive attitudes towards tiering, students were critical of some aspects of the tiering, and their responses suggest that the negative effects of tiering disproportionately affect students who are taking foundation tier papers. Students who were taking foundation papers, or a mixture of foundation and higher tier papers were more likely to report that they were worried about whether they were in the right tier and to raise issues overall regarding tiering.


Capping of attainment

The capping of grades on the foundation paper was one of the biggest problems associated with tiering. The majority of students surveyed in both regions believed it was unfair that a C was the highest grade available on foundation tier, with several students suggesting that the C boundary on foundation be raised to a B. The C grade cap at foundation led to difficult decisions for both students and teachers. The dilemma is illustrated by this pupil in Northern Ireland:

“it’s like do you just want to take the safe option and take your pass or do you want to see if you can do better, but you don’t really want to risk it if you know you can already pass” (Male student, NI)

The language of risk dominated discussions of tiering for students who were taking the foundation tier papers. Worryingly, the focus group discussions revealed that students who were faced with these difficult choices often had a poor understanding of the grade boundaries on tiers. Many students appeared to believe that the lowest grade possible on the higher tier was a C, whereas it is in fact a D, and so taking the higher paper was less of a ‘risk’ than they thought.

Further research from WISERDEducation has also identified misconceptions about grade boundaries among students. Our research shows that 57% of higher tier  students aged 14-15 years old surveyed in 2017 mistakenly believed that the lowest pass grade for their tier was a C, and that a quarter of foundation tier students believed that they could attain a B on the foundation paper.

It is clear that we need further discussions about whether tiering is fit for purpose, particularly for students taking foundation papers, for whom tiering appears to be more problematic. One obvious solution is to ensure that all students have good quality information and guidance about their tiers.



Tiering is not necessary for all subjects, and there are other methods that could be used when it is determined that a single paper would not be suitable for every student. For example, under the core plus extension model, all students sit a ‘core’ paper where the highest grade is a B or a C, and those wishing to attain higher grades can sit an additional ‘extension’ paper. Further consultation with young people and teachers could help us understand the feasibility of options such as this and ensure that the system does not disadvantage students currently achieving at the lower end of the grading spectrum.