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Foundation vs Higher Tier Maths GCSE

15/09/2023 / Maths Tutoring

When GCSEs are on the horizon, there are some important decisions you have to make. What subjects should you choose? What grades should you aim for based on what you want to do after GCSEs?

You’ll also find that your school makes some decisions using your previous school marks as a basis to predict what’s best for you at GCSE level. For example, in sciences, modern foreign languages and maths, they’ll enter you in one of two tiers – either the foundation tier or the higher tier.

Since foundation and higher exam papers aren’t the same, it’s important to know which tier you’re in. In this article, we’ll explore the crucial differences between foundation and higher tier maths GCSE, and we’ll discuss the benefits and drawbacks of both tiers.

The marking system for GCSE maths

A crucial difference between foundation tier GCSE maths and higher tier GCSE maths relates to what grades you can achieve. So, let’s delve into the marking system that will be used.

It’s important to note that maths GCSE for the exam boards in England, which are regulated by Ofqual, is different from maths GCSE in Northern Ireland (CCEA exam specification) and maths GCSE in Wales (WJEC). To see more about the differences, see this useful graphic created by the UK government.

In this article, we’ll mainly talk about the rules for the Ofqual-regulated exam specifications. Those are AQA, Pearson Edexcel, OCR and Eduqas (also called WJEC Eduqas – but don’t confuse this with the WJEC exam specification, which follows Welsh rules).

A new grading system for GCSEs in England

As you may know, the English GCSE mathematics course was changed in 2017. While GCSE maths had previously used the familiar letter grade system, ranging from A* to G, it’s now graded from 9 to 1.

What do these number grades mean, if you’re used to thinking of marks in terms of A* to F or G?

9 to 7 matches up to the A-A* range. 6 is roughly like a strong B. 4 or 5 are considered passes (C grade), with 5 being a strong pass. 3 to 1 generally match up to the D to G range. A paper that doesn’t earn any grade is marked as U for ungraded or unclassified, which is the same as it was under the old system.

In other words, you’ll need to earn a 4 or a 5 in order to pass maths GCSE. Anyone who doesn’t earn at least a 4 and wants to continue their schooling will need to re-take their maths GCSE exam to try and pass.

Another important detail is that, even though 4 is technically a pass, the government and many schools see a 5 as the minimum goal – so students may need 5s in order to be accepted for sixth form studies.

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What is the difference between foundation and higher tier GCSE maths?

Now we know why earning a 4 or 5 is important, we can examine the difference between the higher tier maths GCSE paper and the foundation paper.

Different content and grades

If you take a foundation tier GCSE maths course, the possible grades you can earn are 1 through to 5. You cannot earn a 6 or higher through a foundation tier paper.

In contrast, if you take a higher tier maths GCSE course, you can earn grades 4 through to 9.

Why are the papers marked this way? Because the content covered in the higher tier course and exam paper is a bit more complex and challenging, whereas the foundation tier leaves out some of that really hard content and focuses more on foundational concepts.

Different topic weightings

GCSE maths exams regulated by Ofqual cover five main topic areas:

  • Number
  • Algebra
  • Ratio, proportion and rates of change
  • Geometry
  • Probability and statistics

However, the weighting of these topics is different in the two tiers. In other words, the foundation tier focuses more on some topics, while the higher tier emphasises other topics. For example, the foundation tier paper includes more questions in the number topic, which is more basic, while the higher tier paper puts more weight on challenging algebra.

The government has set out the weightings for these topics as follows:

 Foundation tierHigher tier
Ratio, proportion and rates of change25%20%
Probability and statistics15%15%

Take a look at our guide to the GCSE maths syllabus to see what sub-topics are covered within each topic and which sub-topics are covered only in the higher tier paper.

Which tier is better?

As we’ve said, your school will usually make the decision as to whether you’ll take the foundation or higher tier paper. However, you may be able to ask your school to switch you to a different tier course.

If you’re wondering which tier is best for you, there is no easy answer. It completely depends on your individual skills and needs, such as your maths abilities, your goals, and how much time you have to devote to revising for this subject.

Just remember that all of your exam papers need to be the same tier – you can’t take one exam paper in the higher tier and then switch down to the foundation tier for the rest.

Benefits and drawbacks of foundation tier GCSE maths

Benefits of foundation tier GCSE maths

A foundation tier GCSE maths course is good if you’ve found maths a bit challenging in the past or if you’re worried about passing. Because lessons in a foundation tier class will leave out the most complicated content, you’ll have more time to focus on the basics that you’ll need to pass – which are also the topics you have the best chance of success in. The exam paper will reflect this – you won’t see any questions on the most complex content.

Questions on the foundation tier exam paper will tend to be written differently from those on the higher tier paper. While there will be some questions that are the same on the same exam board’s foundation and higher tier papers, many other questions might be shorter or less complicated. For example, they might be multiple choice rather than open answer.

This means two things. Firstly, a foundation tier exam paper will be less challenging and complex than a higher tier paper. But secondly, it should be less anxiety-inducing. If you struggle with maths, it can be really stressful to look at questions that are very complex. Anxiety from seeing hard questions could prevent a student from doing as well as they could on the whole exam, even on questions that aren’t actually too challenging for their skill level.

Drawbacks of foundation tier GCSE maths

The major drawback here is that you cannot earn a mark higher than a 5, even if you get every single question right on all the exam papers you take.

If you really want to earn a 6 or higher, higher tier is the only way to do it.

This means that a foundation tier course won’t give you what you need if you’re aiming to take STEM subjects at A level or at university. A level maths courses often require you to have earned a 7 at GCSE – which is impossible if you take the foundation tier paper.

It’s not just about marks, either. Regardless of the grade you achieve at GCSE, a foundation tier maths course just doesn’t sufficiently cover the advanced topics you need to succeed in maths at A level.

What’s more, other subjects such as science rely on maths skills. So, if you’re aiming for a career in science, you’ll probably need advanced maths skills for that too, meaning that higher tier maths could be better for you.

What are the benefits and drawbacks of higher tier maths GCSE?

Benefits of higher tier maths GCSE

As you’d expect, one major reason to take higher tier is that you can earn the maximum grade – a 9 in GCSE maths. The more complex content covered and the possibility of earning a 6 or higher opens the door to maths and other subjects as A levels.

Also, if you enjoy maths, the challenge of higher tier maths GCSE can be really fun!

Drawbacks of higher tier maths GCSE

If maths isn’t a breeze for you, one pitfall of taking a higher tier maths GCSE course is that you might spend more time struggling with challenging content and not enough on the foundational content you could have done really well in. That means your grade could actually end up lower!

With a foundation tier paper, you might have spent all your time on more basic skills and mastered them, letting you earn a solid 5. With a higher tier paper, you could end up neglecting those basic skills in favour of harder skills. But if you don’t master the harder skills either, you could end up with a 4 or less.

What happens if you score lower than a 4 on a higher tier paper? You get a mark of U, or ungraded. If you think it’s possible that you could score lower than a 4, a foundation tier course is definitely a better bet.

Lastly, this course may be a lot more demanding of your time and energy. If you’re really devoting a lot of effort to another GCSE course, you don’t intend to pursue maths at A level, or both, then a higher tier maths GCSE course might just not be worth it for you. Burnout is also a concern – you want to make sure you’re taking care of your mental health and not working yourself really hard pushing through very tough material.

How Principal Tutors can help you succeed in GCSE maths

Whether you’re worried about passing GCSE maths or you’re devoting yourself to getting a grade 9, a private tutor can really help. Every tutor with Principal Tutors is a fully qualified teacher who knows the maths curriculum inside and out. That one-on-one time with a teacher can be just what students need to talk through their thoughts, get past sticking points and master maths skills in both higher and foundation tier GCSE maths.

Want to know more about how a private GCSE maths tutor can help you or your child succeed? Give us a ring on 0800 772 0974 or use our online form to get started with tutoring now.


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