GCSE Results Day: Pass rates fall amid biggest exam shake-up in generation

Two-thirds of top grades awarded to girls, but male pupils continue to dominate higher results in maths

May Bulman
Thursday 24 August 2017 08:27
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GCSE results in numbers

GCSE pass rates have fallen this year amid the biggest shake-up to the exams in a generation, with the number of pupils attaining the top grades plummeting under the new system.

As half a million pupils receive their results, today’s figures show that across England, Wales and Northern Ireland, the proportion of entries scoring a C or above – or a 4 under the new grading system – has fallen by 0.6 percentage points since last year to 66.3 per cent – the lowest it’s been since 2008.

The figures, published by the Joint Council for Qualifications (JCQ), show that the percentage of pupils achieving at least one A grade – or a 7 under the new system – has dropped by 0.5 percentage points to 20 per cent, the lowest since 2007, when the figure was 19.5 per cent.

Under the exam overhaul, traditional A* to G grades are being gradually replaced in England with a 9 to 1 system, with English and maths – key GCSEs for all teenagers – being the first to move across this year and other subjects following over the next two years.

Among pupils in England, slightly more than 2,000 pupils achieved a grade 9 in all three reformed subjects, compared with 6,500 attaining the top A* mark in all three last year – marking a drop of more than 50 per cent of the pupils achieving the highest grade under the new system.

​In all, around 50,000 pupils in England achieved the top 9 grade in one or more subjects, with 3.5 per cent of 16-year-olds – around 18,600 – attaining the top score in maths, 2.6 per cent (13,700) in English and 3.3 per cent (around 17,000) in English literature. This marks a decrease on last year when 4 per cent of 16-year-olds in England scored an A* in English language and 7 per cent got the top mark in maths.

Two-thirds of this year’s new grade 9s were awarded to girls, with female pupils outperforming boys in both English GCSEs, although boys maintained a lead in maths. The gender gap across the UK has widened since last summer, with some 71 per cent of girls achieving a C/grade 4 or higher compared with 61.5 per cent of boys – a 0.6 per cent rise on the gap in 2016.

Overall across the UK, 72.6 per cent of pupils got a C or grade 4 in English literature or above, down 3 per cent from last year. In English, meanwhile, the figure rose from 60.2 per cent to 62.1 per cent. In maths, the overall proportion of entries getting C or grade 4 or above dropped from 61 per cent in 2016 to 59.4 per cent.

GSCE results in Northern Ireland improved, with the overall percentage of students obtaining the top A* grade rising by 0.7 percentage points to 10 per cent, while those obtaining grades A* to C increased by 0.4 points to 79.5 per cent.

In Wales, overall GCSE pass rates fell following the introduction of new Wales-only qualifications, which saw a “large influx” of 15-year-olds sitting their exams at the end of Year 10. The number of Welsh students achieving A* to G grades is down 1.8 percentage points to 96.9 per cent, while the number gaining the top A* to A grades fell by 1.5 per cent to 17.9 per cent.

The new grading scale has more grades at the higher end to recognise the very highest achievers, with grade 9 being the highest grade and grade 4 as a “standard pass” – equivalent to a C grade. If pupils fail to achieve a grade 4 or higher, they will need to continue to study these subjects as part of their post-16 education.

Concerns have been raised throughout the school year over a lack of clarity about the new grading system, and it emerged last month that more than half a million pounds of public money was being spent on explaining confusing GCSE exam reforms.

Research released today shows that three-quarters of GCSE students say they are struggling to understand the new 9-1 system, with one in 10 (13 per cent) unable to identify the highest grade available in English and maths and a quarter of (26 per cent) unable to identify a correct pass grade in the reformed subjects.

According to the study by website The Student Room, which surveyed 3,692 students in England, half also said they did not have access to suitable practice papers before their exam, while a quarter (24 per cent) felt their teachers didn’t adequately prepare them for their exams, and more than half found mistakes by exam boards in their exam papers.

There were also warnings from experts prior to the release of this year’s GCSE results that thousands of students could receive the wrong grades under the new marking system. Robert Coe, a professor in Durham University’s School of Education, warned several days before that in some cases a child’s grade will be “not much more than chance”.

Commenting on the GCSE results, Chris Keates, General Secretary of the NASUWT-The Teachers’ Union, urged the Government to “learn from thee mistakes” of the past year before rolling out the new system to other subjects, and ensure they provide “clear guidance” to schools in order prevent further pressure and confusion.

“This year’s enforced changes to the grading of maths and English created great uncertainty for pupils, teachers, parents and employers. Schools have been forced largely to navigate the way for themselves largely due to the rushed and poorly planned reform timescale imposed by the Government,” said Mr Keates.

“Fortunately they were able to come through for the young people involved, driven by the recognition of the importance of these examinations to the life chances of pupils. The expectation that schools will continually plug the gap for Government failures simply cannot continue.

“Before rolling out the new grades to further subjects, the Government must learn from the mistakes of the last twelve months and provide clear and timely guidance to schools to prevent a repeat of the unnecessary anxiety, confusion and additional workload which has added to the pressures teachers are already facing.”

In response to today’s results, Nick Gibb, Minister for School Standards, congratulated pupils and urged that the benefits of the new GCSE system would be seen “in years to come”.

“The Government’s new gold-standard GCSEs in English and maths have been benchmarked against the best in the world, raising academic standards for pupils. These reforms represent another step in our drive to raise standards, so that pupils have the knowledge and skills they need to compete in a global workplace,” he said

“The fruits of these reforms will be seen in the years to come, but already pupils and teachers are rising to the challenge with more than 50,000 top 9 grades awarded across the new GCSEs and more than two-thirds of entries sitting the tougher English and maths exams securing a grade 4 or C and above – a standard pass.”

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