Education experts have dubbed the new GSCEs the hardest since the 1980s and warned the complicated new system could leave high-achieving children feeling like failures.
The new system, introduced under former Education Secretary Michael Gove, reflects the traditional method of relying more on end-of-year exams than coursework.
It is the first year the system has been in place, and initially only effects maths and English courses.
And a re-vamped grade system has been introduced to enable more comparison between the top-performing students.
But, as pupils prepare to collect their results on Thursday, some experts have warned schools it could cause a drop in performance.
And they said there could be confusion across colleges and universities over the way the new grades are ranked.
Barnaby Lenon, chairman of the Independent Schools Council, told the Standard the new GCSEs have “questions of a level of difficulty that we have not seen since the abolition of O-levels in 1987” and said schools who rely on coursework could expect a fall in grades.
Philip Nye, a researcher with the thinktank Education Datalab, added that he expects a spike in the number of pupils disappointed with their grades who put in requests for remarks from exam boards.
“With all of the changes this year, it’s quite likely that there’ll be more requests for re-marks,” he told The Guardian. “There’s going to be a lot of kids who feel they’ve not done very well because they haven’t got the top grade, which they previously would have done.”
The new system is currently being used for just English and Maths and will later be rolled out to other subjects on the curriculum.
Under the rules, pupils will be graded 9 to 1 rather than A* to G. Grade 4 is considered a pass, but 5 is a “strong pass”, according to Government guidelines.
Some have pointed out that colleges or universities may favour a grade 5, despite the former being officially classed as a pass – causing confusion over entry requirements.
Similarly, the old A* has been split into two grades – 8 and 9 – with a 7 equalling an A.
This system was brought in after universities complained too many pupils were achieving As and A*s, making it difficult to differentiate.
Mr Lenon pointed out that, depending on how narrow the grade boundaries are set, the new levels could not be a reflection on intelligence – just exam technique.
“Universities should not consider the distinction between an 8 and a 9 worth making until they have evidence that it does indicate something,” he said.
“After all, 95 per cent might get you a grade 8, 96-100 per cent a grade 9. Does the grade 9 student have greater intellectual ability and academic potential or are they simply better at writing fast, or better at checking for silly errors?”
He said the new exams help the most able children to excel but do not do much to assist the pupils who struggle to achieve a pass.
“It is the quality of teaching of less able or less diligent pupils that will help them to succeed in their GCSEs,” he said.
“Raising the bar is only worthwhile if the high jumpers train harder and jump higher.”