GCSE grades drop for the first students to sit exams in three years

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Tens of thousands of GCSE students have missed out on the grades they wanted as the education system shifts back to pre-pandemic normal.

Final year school students across the country who saw their schooling disrupted by Covid-19 are finding out their results this morning.

The number of top grades handed out are down on the record-highs handed out last year when exams were scrapped altogether. 

But results remain well above where they were in 2019, mirroring a trend seen in last week’s A-Level results, as a result of changes in marking designed to reflect the unique challenges this cohort has faced.

This year-group is the first to sit a full round of exams in three years, despite experiencing unprecedented changes to their schooling during a formative period in their studies.

Education minister Will Quince said the large drop in top grades is ‘very much part of the plan’ as the school system moves away from teacher assessments and back to exams.

The breakdown of results in different areas reveals stark differences.

This is the effect Covid-19 changes to exams have had on grades in England, Wales and Northern Ireland over the last four years (Picture AFP/Getty)
Grades have fallen but are still higher than where they were before Covid-19 (Picture: PA)

In London, the pass rate was 76.7%, compared to 69.6% in Yorkshire and the Humber and 68.6% in Wales.

The proportion of pupils getting top grades (32.6%) in the capital was well above the average in England (26%), where five areas returned rates below 24%.

On closing the attainment gap and addressing regional disparities in education quality, Mr Quince said the ‘pandemic has without question set us back on that mission’.

He also admitted it may have been misguided to close schools during the pandemic, given the knock-on effects on education compared to the relative mildness of Covid-19 in children.

Pupils at Roedean School in Brighton are delighted with their results but there is disappointment for thousands (Picture: PA)

Mr Quince told ITV’s Good Morning Britain that ‘mistakes were made throughout the course of the pandemic’.

He said: ‘But we’ve learned from that, and, as a result, I think it is highly unlikely that, in the future, we would consider closing schools, knowing what we now know about the impact that it had on young people.’

Labour has sought to put pressure on the government to do more to tackle regional variation in results, claiming ‘​​12 years of Conservative governments has left a legacy of unequal outcomes that are holding back kids’.

Grades were higher across the board in 2021 because exams were replaced with more generous teacher assessments (Picture: Getty)

Figures published by the Joint Council for Qualifications (JCQ) – covering GCSE entries from students predominantly in England, Wales and Northern Ireland – showed top grades of 7/A have fallen from 28.9% in 2021 to 26.3% this year, a drop of 2.6 percentage points.

But this remains higher than the equivalent figure for 2019 of 20.8%.

The proportion of entries receiving a 4/C – considered a pass – dropped from 77.1% in 2021 to 73.2% this year, a fall of 3.9 percentage points, but higher than 67.3% in 2019.

Girls continued their lead over boys this year, with 30.0% of entries achieving a 7/A, compared with 22.6% for males.

The gap has closed slightly from last year, when 33.4% of female entries were awarded 7/A or above compared with 24.4% for males, a lead of 9.0 percentage points.

How do GCSE results work these days?

If you’re over the age of 21, you’re probably a bit mystified by the numbered grades being handed out today.

Under the new system a 9 is the highest mark, a 7 is broadly equivalent to an A and a 4 is broadly equivalent to a standard C grade.

Students who fail completely are still awarded a U like in the old system.

Then-education minister Michael Gove introduced the system in 2014 as part of a wider overhaul of the system, in part because it creates an extra top grade for high achieving students to aim for.

Traditional A*-G grades are used in Northern Ireland and Wales, while Scotland has its own exam system.

Kath Thomas, interim chief executive officer of JCQ, congratulated students getting their results ‘after lots of hard work and all the challenges of the pandemic’.

She said: ‘We’re pleased that exams are back, as they’re the fairest way to assess students and give everyone the chance to show what they know.

‘This is the first time in three years that results have been based on formal exams and coursework, so it’s a welcome step back towards normality.

‘These results will help them progress to the next stage of their education and make some important decisions about their future.

‘As planned, and as with last week’s A-level results, these results are higher than the last set of summer exams in 2019, but lower than last year’s teacher-assessed grades.

Separate figures, published by exams regulator Ofqual, showed that 2,193 pupils in England got a clean sweep of top grades, including 13 students who did at least 12 GCSEs.

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