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GCSE top grades fall but remain above pre-Covid levels amid stark north-south divide

Efforts had been made to return grading in England to pre-pandemic levels

Holly Evans
Thursday 24 August 2023 18:38 BST
Students in England, Wales and Northern Ireland have received their GCSE results
Students in England, Wales and Northern Ireland have received their GCSE results (Jordan Pettitt/PA)

Students being awarded top grades in their GCSE exams has dropped from last year, but remains higher than 2019, as grading returns to near pre-pandemic levels.

Figures show that 22 per cent of pupils were awarded the top grades of 7/A or above, down from 26.3 per cent in 2022 but up from 20.8 per cent in 2019.

It comes amid growing concerns over a north-south divide, with a breakdown of the results exposing a big regional difference.

Annabel Bolton receiving her GCSE results with her mother Helen at Portsmouth Grammar School, in Hampshire. (Andrew Matthews/PA)

This forms part of a plan to bring grades down to pre-pandemic levels in England this year, with the exam regulator previously warning schools and headteachers to expect a drop in top GCSE grades.

It comes after Covid-19 led to an increase in grades in 2020 and 2021, with the results based on teacher assessments instead of exams.

GCSE pupils in the UK last year had a pass rate of 73.2 per cent, compared with 67.3 per cent in 2019.

With efforts made to restore grading to similar levels to 2019, the number of pupils in England achieving at least a grade 4 in English and maths GCSE has fallen, which could impact whether they go on to sixth form, college or training.

In England, many pupils who fail English or maths GCSE must resit them until they are able to leave school.

Traditional A*-G grades are used in Wales and Northern Ireland while England’s results have been replaced with a 9-1 system, with 9 being the highest. A grade of 4 is considered the equivalent to a C or a standard pass and a 7 is equivalent to an A.

According to figures from Ofqual, the number of 16-year-old students in England who received a 9 – the highest grade under the numerical grading system – in all their subjects has nearly halved from last year.

More than a fifth of UK GCSE entries were awarded the top grades, at least a 7/A or above (Liam McBurney/PA)

Some 1,150 16-year-olds in England taking at least seven GCSEs achieved a grade 9 in all their subjects, compared with 2,193 last year and 837 in 2019.

Key subjects such as maths and English have seen a drop in highest grades, with 17.5 per cent achieving a 7/A or above in maths compared to 20.1 per cent in 2022.

In English, top-performing students saw a drop from 20.4 per cent down to 16.3 per cent compared to last year.

Last week, the proportion of A-level entries achieving top grades fell – with some 73,000 fewer top A-level grades than last year – but it also remained above pre-pandemic levels.

Girls continued their lead over boys for the top GCSE grades, with 24.9 per cent of entries awarded 7/A or above compared with 19.1 per cent for males – a gap of 5.8 percentage points.

But the gap has narrowed from last year when girls were ahead of boys by 7.4 percentage points (30.0 per cent girls, 22.6 per cent boys) and from 2019 when girls led by 6.5 percentage points.

It is the narrowest lead enjoyed by girls at 7/A since 2009.

Last year’s GCSE results in England saw the widest gap in results for a decade between disadvantaged pupils and their better-off peers, with unions and headteachers noting a rise in anxiety in the aftermath of Covid-19 and the cost of living crisis.

Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), said of those receiving their 2023 results: “An enormous amount of hard work has gone into these qualifications in often difficult circumstances and the young people receiving their results today deserve great credit for what they have achieved.”

He added: “We would caution against direct comparisons between this year’s grades and those in 2019 because of the disproportionate impact of the pandemic and subsequent cost-of-living crisis on young people from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Grading has returned to pre-pandemic levels following an increase in grades in 2020 and 2021 (PA)

“It is likely that the outcomes for many of these young people will be affected by these factors and this may also impact on the results of schools which serve disadvantaged communities.

“The government has failed to grasp the gravity of this issue. It did not invest sufficiently in education recovery from the pandemic – causing its own recovery commissioner to resign in protest – and it has failed to address the high level of child poverty in the UK. We are concerned that this will lead to a widening of the attainment gap between rich and poor.”

Schools minister Nick Gibb said differences in GCSE grading across the UK should not disadvantage pupils.

Asked if some pupils were being disadvantaged through a lack of continuity across all four nations of the UK when it comes to grading, he told GB News: “No they won’t be because the sixth form or wherever they are going to go next in the next phase of their education, they take that into account, they know there is a difference approach to grading. And we saw that last week with A Levels, that universities are aware of the different approaches to these qualifications in different parts of the United Kingdom. And the same applies to GCSEs. Most young people will transition to an institution local to them.”

Education secretary Gillian Keegan said that grading was returning to normal (PA)

Bill Watkin, chief executive of the Sixth Form Colleges Association (SFCA), said it was “possible” that some sixth forms and colleges will lower the GCSE grades required for entry compared with last year.

He said: “I think entry-level requirements compared to the last two years might be flexed to accommodate people who have got lower grades than they would have got in the last two years.

“But what no one wants to do is to raise false hopes by saying ‘Oh, you’ve got 3s and 4s in your GCSEs. I’m sure last year they would have been 4s and 5s so let’s put you on an A-level course’. Because the bottom line is if you do that you risk a young person being overstretched and very unhappy.”

Education secretary Gillian Keegan said: “This cohort have shown tremendous resilience in recent years and should be proud of all the work they’ve done to reach this milestone.

“Grading is returning to normal which means a pupil who would have achieved a grade 4 before the pandemic is just as likely to achieve that this year.”

She added: “Students now have more options to choose from than ever before – such as our high-quality T-levels, including legal and agriculture starting from this September.

“They can also take A-levels or earn and learn on a wide range of apprenticeships, from journalism to accountancy.

“Whichever path students decide to take, they can have confidence it will set them up for a successful career. I wish everyone the very best as they move on to their next chapter.”

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