GCSE results: Top grades reach all-time high after exams cancelled

Covid, GCSE results, GCSE, Gavin Williamson

The proportion of pupils awarded top GCSE grades has soared to an all-time high after exams were cancelled for the second year in a row due to the Covid crisis.

Hundreds of thousands of youngsters have been given results determined by their teachers, with pupils only assessed on what they have been taught during the pandemic.

Overall, 28.9 per cent of GCSE entries were awarded one of the three top grades this year – up by 2.7 percentage points on last year, figures for England, Wales and Northern Ireland show.

It represents a significant rise on 2019, the last year in which exams were held, when only a fifth (20.8 per cent) of entries achieved the top three grades of at least a 7 – the equivalent of an A grade.

Schools minister Nick Gibb schools minister said there will be a push by government to get back to pre-pandemic achievement levels in the “longer term” following grade inflation during the pandemic.

Mr Gibb said the grading system for next year’s return to exams had yet to be worked out. “We will be making adjustments to those exams to reflect the fact that this cohort will have had disruption to their education as well,” he said on Thursday.

The schools minister also defended his under-pressure colleague Gavin Williamson, describing him as “a very effective education secretary”. It comes as Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer said Mr Williamson should have been sacked “a long time ago”.

Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), dismissed talk of grade inflation – saying it was “somewhat meaningless” to compare the pandemic period with other years.

But the union leader said he did expect pressure to be placed on admissions teams at sixth forms colleges after the record results. Mr Barton warned that some young people could be “turned away” from courses if centres cannot increase capacity.

Professor Alan Smithers, at the Centre of Education and Employment Research at Buckingham University, said it would be difficult to reverse the grade inflation trend. “It will be quite a task for the government to put the genie back into the bottle,” he said.

More than three in four (77.1 per cent) of UK entries were awarded at least a 4 – broadly the equivalent of a C, which is up by 0.8 per cent on last year when 76.3 per cent achieved the grades.

Analysis by Ofqual found that 61.2 per cent of GCSE entries from private schools in England were awarded a grade 7 or above this year, compared with 57.2 per cent in 2020 and 46.6 per cent in 2019.

Independent schools have seen the largest absolute increase in the highest grades compared with other types of schools and colleges – up four per cent on last year.

It will add to concerns over a growing attainment gap in the education system, after A-level results released earlier this week showed that the divide between private and state schools in achieving top grades had become even wider.

Girls have pulled further ahead than boys amid the rise in top grades this year. The gap between boys and girls achieving one of the top three grades has risen from eight per cent in 2020 to nine per cent this year.

Last summer, the fiasco around grading led to thousands of A-level students having their results downgraded from school estimates by a controversial algorithm before Ofqual announced a U-turn.

The proportion of GCSE entries awarded top grades rose to a record high last year after grades were allowed to be based on teachers’ assessments, if they were higher than the moderated grades given, following the U-turn.

This year, teachers in England submitted their decisions on pupils’ A-level and GCSE grades after drawing on a range of evidence, including mock exams, coursework and in-class assessments using questions by exam boards. No algorithm was used this year to moderate grades.

Instead, schools and colleges in England were asked to provide samples of student work to exam boards, as well as evidence used to determine the grades for the students selected, as part of quality assurance (QA) checks.

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