Class of 2021: What do record-breaking results mean for the future of work?

This year’s International Baccalaureate, A level, GCSE and IGCSE cohort nudged attainment even higher. The results also saw a rise in STEM subject uptake. Despite their disrupted education, could Generation Covid be more future-ready than ever?

Marymount International School Rome, IBDP, American Diploma
Autumn 2021 magazine cover
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Results from this summer’s exam season for 16–18-year-olds completing GCSE, A Level, B Tech and IB studies met with claims of grade inflation as well as relief and celebration.Only Scottish National 5, Higher and Advanced Higher grades slightly fell below last year’s outcome, yet remain up on 2019 – the last year formal exams took place. Top grades in England, Wales and Northern Ireland – as well as for students internationally studying International Baccalaureate curricula and IGCSEs – were the highest ever, after exams were widely replaced with teacher assessments.

Overview of 2021 results

For the International Baccalaureate’s Diploma Programme (IDBP), the first to release results in June, the global Class of 2021, which included students taking exam and non-exam routes, boosted the average diploma score to 33.02 points, from 31.34 last year. Average diploma grade and pass rates were also up on 2020, rising to 5.19 and 88.96% respectively.At TASIS, the American School in England, students achieved a 100% pass rate, with 20% in bilingual diplomas and an average score of 36. Head of School, Bryan Nixon said: “Our congratulations to our students who have grown through adversity and demonstrated their commitment to their life-long learning journey.” Nicki Crush, Director of the International School of Luxembourg (ISL), whose 2021 IB cohort also achieved well above the global average, also highlighted how impressive the results are this year “if you think about how challenging the two last years have been and it undeniably attests to the high-level of resilience of our students.”A level, GCSE and IGCSE pass rates faired similarly. While A level passes declined slightly, more candidates in England, Wales and Northern Ireland achieved top outcomes. Pass rates for A-A* rose by 6.3 percentage points. Independent schools accounted for around two-thirds of A-A* grades.For GCSEs, 79.1% of entries were graded 4 or above – equivalent to a pass – increasing 0.3 percentage points on last year. Figures also show 7.7% of entries at grade 9 and 30.0% at grade 7 or above, representing increases of 1.1 percentage point and 2.4 percentage points respectively in 2020.For IGCSEs, local Covid-19 scenarios meant most Cambridge International IGCSE candidates around the world were able to sit final exams, according to the exam board. Cambridge IGCSE attainment rose slightly by between half and two-thirds of a grade when compared to June 2019 results – the last year all Cambridge students took exams – and are slightly higher than 2020’s results. 

Congratulating the class of 2021

Exam chiefs and politicians were quick to offer their congratulations to students, exam centres and teachers, acknowledging the determination, hard work and effort of all parties in the face of uncertainty.Dr Philip Wright, Director General of the Joint Council for Qualifications, which represents exam boards AQA, City & Guilds, NCFE, CEA, OCR, Pearson, SQA and WJEC, commented, “On behalf of JCQ and the exam boards, I would like to congratulate all students receiving their results. “The impact of Covid-19 has undoubtedly provided a difficult chapter in their education journey and their resilience is to be applauded. We wish them all the best as they take their next steps in life. We would also like to express our sincere thanks to teachers, exams officers, heads of centre and colleagues who have all worked exceptionally hard to determine grades this summer.”Headteachers and principals also praised the resilience of students and staff in these unprecedented times, where teachers assessed students over a sustained period of uncertainty through multiple assessments. “This year’s system of teacher assessed grades has demanded real maturity, flexibility and resilience from our students and exceptional dedication and hard work from teachers,” commented John Attwater, Principal of King’s Ely, where GCSE students achieved 94% of outcomes at Grades 9-5 with 19% at Grade 9.Acknowledging claims of grade inflation in this year’s national results, John Attwater continued, “Some people are writing about ‘spikes’ in grades this year because of the lack of exams and teacher assessment replacing it. “However, today’s grades have been painstakingly and professionally established to gauge students’ level of readiness for further study in each subject, probably more accurately and consistently for each student this year than ever before.”

What of 2022 and beyond?

The debates about teacher assessment and baked-in grade inflation are likely to continue. With schools around the world just starting the new school year, examination regulators are looking to 2022, recognising the ongoing impact of the pandemic on education.In England, examinations watchdog Ofqual will announce this autumn term the grading approach for 2022. Speaking in late August, a Department for Education spokesperson said, “Students have worked incredibly hard during an extremely challenging time and they deserve their qualifications. Exams are the best form of assessment, and we intend for them to go ahead next year and subsequent years.”Schools in Scotland returned in August when the SQA announced examinations will take place “if public health advice allows”. Scotland’s Education Secretary, Shirley-Anne Somerville, announced that exams will take place next year if safe to do so, adding that “fairness for learners sitting exams in 2022 is at the heart of our plans.”The SQA has already made assessment modifications for courses for the next academic session. It has also made contingencies for further Covid disruption, including teacher-assessments based on “normal in-year assessment” if final exams can’t take place.“These contingencies offer stability for teachers and learners in the coming academic session and will allow their focus to be on normal practices in teaching, learning and assessment,” explained Shirley-Anne Somerville.For exams regulated in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, the Times Education Supplement reports discussions are at an early stage that would potentially mean A levels graded numerically instead of alphabetically – similar to GCSEs – from 2023. The change could see the newly graded A level results pegged to 2020’s results as a means to control grade inflation.

Taking Stock

While dialogue around grade inflation is important to ensure fairness and the stability of the university admissions system, it risks detracting from progress in areas of longstanding importance to the future global workforce and inclusion – and the resilience and adaptability of students and educators much in evidence over the past 18 months. In a summer where economies are recovering from the impact of the pandemic, and in the UK recruiters and employers report record vacancies, these latest exam results do also herald some good news.More students achieved A levels in STEM subjects this year than last, continuing the appeal growing take-up of science and maths subjects. At university level, figures from UCAS, the university admissions body, also show more students seeking vocational degrees and greater numbers looking to study for a degree post-18.Bhavina Bharkhada, Head of Policy & Campaigns at Make UK, the body that champions engineering and manufacturing, said, “The increase in top grades awarded in maths amongst female students and high number of young people sitting STEM subjects is fantastic news – especially for the manufacturing sector who are looking for the next generation of innovators, creators and makers.“The pandemic has shown just how integral our science, technology, and industrial base is the UK and we hope these young people are inspired to join our sector to help to tackle the big societal challenges we face as we come out of the Covid crisis.”

Options for education and lifelong learning post-18

With more options to study T levels, BTECs and take up an albeit declining number of apprenticeships, the future is also bright for young people who opt not to study at university from age 18. “We urge young people to look at wealth of opportunities and options available to them including apprenticeships when considering their next steps,” said Bhavina Bharkhada. “Despite the difficult year, almost 6 in 10 employers are continuing to make these opportunities open and accessible to all young people across the whole of the UK.” The CIPD, the professional body for HR and people development, is working with employers and mentors to give the next generation a step up in their working lives. The One Million Chances scheme aims to get employers to create a million opportunities for young people (aged 16-30) – be it through jobs, internships, work experience, apprenticeships T levels or the Kickstart scheme – to help undo the damage done by Covid-19. Employer representative bodies too have joined the conversation to reiterate that education is about more than exam results. Speaking ahead of the GCSE results day, John Cope, CBI Head of Education & Skills policy, said, “Regardless of whether people get the results they hoped for or not, it’s important to remember that grades are just one of the factors employers look for. GCSEs are there to enable young people to take the next step in their learning and broaden their understanding of the possibilities out there.” “Businesses truly believe that education is more than qualifications alone. They also highly prize a good attitude and aptitude towards work. Students who strive to reach their own academic potential, who show creative flair, or demonstrate leadership will have a bright future ahead of them.” 

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