Record numbers of top GCSE grades were awarded to pupils in England but the rise was well below that recorded for the highest A-level grades earlier this week.
Thirty per cent of entries gained grades 7 and above – equivalent to A and A* – compared with 27.5% in 2020 and 22% in 2019, the last year formal exams were held before the Covid pandemic.
State grammar schools in England were by far the most successful with more than 68% of entries awarded grades 7 and above, a rise of nearly three percentage points compared with last year. The figure for secondary modern schools was 20%.
Independent schools, where 70% of A-level entries gained A or above, gave top marks to 61% of GCSE entries, up four percentage points on 2020 and 14 points since 2019.
Grammar schools usually outperform those in the independent sector, in part because many private schools choose to take so-called international or IGCSEs or similar qualifications, rather than the exams regulated by government agencies.
Nationally, the proportion of pupils in England gaining a 4 or higher, equivalent to C or above, was little changed from 78.8% last year to 79.1%, although it is still the highest pass rate since GCSE courses were reformed.
There was also a slight widening of the gap in attainment between pupils who received free school meals and those who did not, according to analysis by Ofqual, the exam regulator. Students with free school meals scored on average 0.1 of a grade lower compared with 2019. Gypsy or Roma students’ outcomes were also down on 2019 by 0.2 of a grade.
Although the 2.5 percentage point rise in top grades was smaller than the more than six percentage point jump in A-levels, it still meant a record 3,600 students gained 9s in every subject they entered. That included 338 pupils who gained the highest grade in 11 or more subjects – in 2019 just 133 pupils managed that feat.
State academies, including 2,000 secondary schools in England, gave grades 7 and above to 28% of entries, while comprehensives awarded top grades to 26%, both rising by more than two percentage points over the year.
Girls outperformed boys in maths in England for the first time since GCSEs were reformed by Michael Gove as education secretary, with 26.4% of girls receiving a 7 or higher compared with 25.5% of boys. In 2019, 20.9% of maths entries by boys gained 7 or above, one percentage point higher than girls.
In English, the gender gap in results was much wider with almost a third of female entrants receiving a 7 or above, compared with just under a fifth of boys. The difference between them was 13.6 percentage points, the biggest gap since 2016.
Analysis published by Ofqual said it had not found discrepancies in patterns of awards by different types of schools. “The changes may therefore reflect the uneven impact of the pandemic which will have been lessened by the assessment arrangements. It is also worth noting that more able students might be more capable of independent study,” the report said.
The delivery of this year’s grades in England went smoothly, in marked contrast to the confusion seen in 2020 when teacher-assessed grades were awarded at the last minute in place of grades derived from an algorithm that provoked a public uproar.
This year exams in England were scrapped in January by the education secretary, Gavin Williamson, who chose to have teachers award grades by assessment, overseen by examination boards.
Geoff Barton, the general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said this year’s GCSE grades were “a fair and accurate reflection” of the ability of pupils receiving them, despite the controversy over grade inflation.
“These pupils deserve huge credit for having weathered the storm of the past 18 months,” Barton said.
“The question of next year’s grades is only one part of the wider issue of how to support pupils in the wake of the pandemic. This must also involve an education recovery plan from the government that is far more ambitious and better funded than ministers have managed so far.”
The schools minister, Nick Gibb, confirmed exams would return for GCSE pupils in England next summer. There would be adjustments to make them fairer, to compensate for the disruption to learning faced by pupils this year, and more detail of the grading standard for those exams would be announced in the autumn, he told the BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.
But he said in the longer term the government wanted to return to the situation in place before the pandemic, where grade inflation was not an issue and “where year on year you didn’t see great variation between the grades awarded”.
Gibb also ruled out keeping teacher assessment as an alternative to exams. He said: “Exams are the fairest system of assessing young people. We had to cancel exams this year because they wouldn’t be fair … But we will be getting back to exams in 2022 because they are simply the fairest way of judging a young person’s attainment.”
While pupils in England, Wales and Northern Ireland all take GCSEs, the devolution of education to each country’s governments has seen the course content, grading and methods of assessment diverge substantially, making any UK-wide comparisons difficult.
In Wales there was a slight dip in the proportion of pupils gaining C or above, to 73.6%, but the rate of entries gaining the top A* and A grades increased from 25.5% to 28.7%.
The Welsh education minister, Jeremy Miles, told students: “You’ve had everything thrown at you over the last 18 months – periods in lockdown, time away from your friends and families, and times where you’ve missed out on many of the social activities you should be enjoying. You’ve shown tremendous resilience to overcome all of these challenges.”
In Northern Ireland the proportion of entries awarded As increased to a fraction under 40%, while the 89.6% of entries achieving C or above was slightly lower than in 2020.