GCSE grades fall to near pre-pandemic levels

GCSE grades have fallen for the second year running as the Office of Qualifications and Examinations Regulation (Ofqual) seeks to return results to pre-pandemic levels.

GCSE examination certificate
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The number of students awarded the highest grades fell from last year but is still higher than 2019. A total of 22.4 % of entries were awarded a grade 7 or above (equivalent to the old A*-A), down from 26.3% last year but up from 20.8% in 2019. Around 68% of students received a level 4 or above, down from 73% last year.

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'Getting back to normal'

This year the number of students getting a fail grade (3 or below) is 30%, similar to pre-pandemic results of 31% in 2019. Last year the figure was 24.7%.A Department for Education spokesman said: “This year, GCSE grading is largely returning to normal in line with plans set out by Ofqual almost two years ago, to ensure qualifications maintain their value and students get the opportunities they deserve.”“It is a very fair system and important to get back to normal,” schools minister Nick Gibb told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme this morning.Exams were replaced with teacher assessments in 2020 due to lockdown restrictions and the share of GCSEs awarded grade 7 or above (the equivalent of an A or A*) rose sharply to 26.2 per cent, up from 20.8 per cent the previous year.At the peak of grade inflation in 2021 almost 30 per cent of GCSEs were a grade 7 or above. Last year, when boundaries were set at a midpoint between 2019 and 2021, 26.3 per cent of GCSEs were awarded top grades. This year the figure is 22.4% and closer to 2019 levels.In a blog post for Ofqual this week Rachel Taylor, associate director for standards and technical Issues, said there had been extra support in place for GCSE students this summer to recognise the disruption the pandemic caused,. This included being given formulae and equation sheets in maths, physics and combined science so there were fewer things to memorise for the exams.“Allowances have been made where the quality of student work is a little weaker than before the pandemic. This means that a student who would have achieved, for example, a grade 5 in maths before the pandemic, will be just as likely to get one in 2023, even if their performance was a little weaker,” writes Taylor.

The Covid disadvantage

Despite the allowances, education experts say this year’s cohort have been disadvantaged by the ongoing effects of the pandemic. When they were in years 8 and 9 schools were closed for long periods during the pandemic. Students lost over one third of their expected days in the classroom, according to a 2021 study by the London School of EconomicsIn addition, significant numbers of students, around 22%, have been persistently absent from school in the past year missing out on chunks of teaching. Earlier this year, the Guardian reported that one in 10 pupils taking GCSEs in year 11 in England were absent from school each day, an increase of 70% since before the pandemic. Education leaders also reported more pupils experiencing anxiety, failing to turn up to exams or walking out of exam rooms.“This year’s results will come as a shock to young people and their parents, but it is necessary to restore the value, precision and accuracy of the grades, which got out of hand when examinations could not be held,” Professor Alan Smithers, director of education at the University of Buckingham told the Telegraph: “The grades, although less flattering, will be a much firmer basis for taking decisions about the future.”In a replica of last week’s A level results, pupils in England have received lower grades than their counterparts in Wales and Northern Ireland where exams will not return to pre-pandemic standards until next year. The proportion of passed in England has fallen by just over five percent since last year compared with between three and four percent in Northern Ireland and Wales.Education experts are particularly concerned about results in English and Maths which are traditionally among the lowest for all GCSE subjects. Around 40,000 more students are thought likely to fail to get a grade 4 in these two subjects. Students who fail to get a grade 4 in either subject (around one third of entrants) are required to retake until the age of 18 and a grade 4 in both subjects is usually required to proceed to sixth form and university. “These subjects really matter in the workplace and can transform lives,” says schools minister Nick Gibb. “Since the resit policy was introduced in 2014 we have record numbers of 19 year olds with English and maths at grade 4 or above.”

Students have plenty of options

Students whose results are not as good as expected still have plenty of options including BTEC qualifications which are an alternative route to university and T-levels,  a two-year vocational qualification introduced in 2020 involving a mixture of classroom learning and work placements.
For students with a specific career in mind, NVQs and apprenticeships that lead to a degree provide alternatives to university.“The results are just a snapshot of time, says Laura-Jane Rawlings, CEO of Youth Employment UK.  “This cohort has seen much disruption from Covid-19 to teacher strikes and global crises and have shown great resilience and adaptability - two qualities that are very important to future employers and in life in general. The options remain wide open: colleges and sixth form schools are ready with advice and there is no wrong door right now. Decisions and results at 16 do not define the future; they just impact the next move in a long game.” WHERE TO FIND HELPYouthemployment.org.uk run an exam result helpline on 0800 100 900 where get help from large team careers advisors.Apprenticeships.gov.uk for apprenticeships in the UKNationalcareersservice.gov.uk – helpline on  0800 100 900 to talk to a careers advisor or use webchatFor students stressed about their results find help at youngminds.org.uk; ChildLine on 0800 1111 or mind.org.uk on  0300 123 3393

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