GCSE results 2023: what they mean for students, schools and employers

Students and schools in England, Wales and Northern Ireland and internationally receiving their GCSE are iGCSE results are facing a return to 2019’s pre-pandemic grading levels. What does the future look like for university admissions, skills and enterprise?

Millfield School students collect their GCSE results
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Figures released by Ofqual, the body that regulates qualifications, examinations and assessments in England, show 67.8% of GCSEs grades awarded were at 4 or above this year – the level considered by employers, further and higher education as a pass – compared to 67.1% in 2019. In the mid-pandemic peak where there were no summer exams, the proportion of passes was 76.9%.There was also a fall in the number of GCSE grade 7-9s awarded in 2023 from last year, although slightly up on 2019. Across the UK, as expected, the pattern – but not the rate of realignment – was replicated in Wales and Northern Ireland, as with 2023's A level results.

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Responding to demographic change

Importantly for conversations around the future workplace, skills and innovation, the number of students sitting GCSEs and iGCSEs rose significantly this year because of the increase in the 16-year-old population since 2019.In England, GCSE entries from 16-year-olds have increased by over 400,000 compared to 2019.Cambridge International Assessments, which offers the iGCSE curriculum used in many international and independent schools, also reports record entry numbers this year, up 6% on 2022.IB student numbers for the IB Diploma and Career programmes were similarly up 3.47% on 2022.The impact of this demographic bulge is starting to be felt on university admissions. It also means even more competition for apprenticeships, entry-level jobs, and university places in two years’ time when this cohort comes to sit their Level 3 qualifications, including IB, A level, T level and Btech.Clare Marchant, chief executive of UCAS, the university admissions body, warned in 2021 that the ongoing uptick in university admissions will result in a “huge spike” by 2025. The Russell Group raised concerns over the summer about the impact of funding cuts on UK universities’ ability to maintain their global leadership status and of the ability of the UK’s higher education sector to protect the skills pipeline skills that supports economic growth and innovation. This despite the government achieving its target of attracting 600,000 international students by 2030.Speaking in July, Dr Tim Bradshaw, Chief Executive of the Russell Group, which represents 24 of the UK’s. leading universities. said: "Russell Group universities have grown UK student numbers in recent years, and home students continue to make up over three-quarters of our undergraduates. However, with government per-student funding falling, this revenue is now being used to supplement both domestic teaching and publicly-funded research. Universities work to run as efficiently as possible, but if the situation remains unchanged, their ability to mitigate the impact on quality and choice for students is limited.”Already, the A level examination session in 2023 inevitably led to disappointment as some students did not get the grades needed and as popular courses were oversubscribed and places filled. This despite a small fall in international students applying to UK universities and places and eight in ten students receiving their first-choice university on results day.Students are therefore increasingly being encouraged to look at all their options, including resitting, reapplying for 2024, finding apprenticeships and in some cases, seeking entry into the armed forces.

Creating opportunities for all

Analysis of the GCSE results has also raised concerns around the growing attainment gap, with students in economically wealthier areas performing best. The highest percentage of grade 9s were centred around London and the Home Counties. In Buckinghamshire and Berkshire for example, 8-9% of grades were grade 9 this year. In Oxfordshire, Surrey and Greater London, the figure was 7-8%. This compares to between 1-2% in Staffordshire and the Isle of Wight, and between 2-3% across much of the rest of England.With educational attainment impacting further and higher education opportunities, the figures highlight the future challenges employers can help continue to mitigate by widening access through considering broader life experiences, and reducing or removing educational barriers to entry, as well as monitoring DEI in recruitment and ongoing talent management.Preparing for greater competition for university places in the coming years also underscores the importance of extra-curricular activities, personal development and wider interests, as well as community service and student guidance. Independent and international schools as well as state schools are already mindful of this. Releasing their results, this year they are as keen to showcase students' all-round achievements as well as their academic successes.While Ella was this year’s top achiever at Millfield School in Somerset, received a remarkable nine 9s and an A in Additional Maths, Millfield School also highlighted how Ella had taken the opportunities to participate in Maths and Languages Olympiads, attend Combined Cadet Force (CCF), gain her silver Duke of Edinburgh award this year, represent the school in sports, as well as volunteer at her local library and youth centre. Ella said: “I’m very happy. I was surprised when I saw my results but a lot of hard work went into them.”  There are countless other success stories where teachers, schools, students and parents have worked together so help young people achieve their potential. At Clifton College, an international day and boarding school in Bristol, student Alex, who started in the Prep School, achieved eleven 9s and is now looking to studying in the school's sixth form. He credited his teachers, particularly his English teacher, for helping to raise his grades in English from 6s and 7s to 9s in a short space of time. Henry also said the extra clinics and focused practice papers helped him achieve his fantastic grades.Head of College, Dr Tim Greene, said of the news that almost a quarter of GCSE grades were 9s and 61% were 9-7 (nearly 40% higher than the national average of 22.4%): “I would like to congratulate all our pupils on securing such a great set of results. These results have come about through a great deal of hard work and with amazing support from all the teaching staff.”A number of the College's A level cohort in 2023 – which achieved 76% of A Level grades at A*-B – are also heading for pre-university gap years internationally, including placements, to enhance their learning and wider experience and maximise their undergraduate studies. Alex, for example, achieved four A*s will be studying engineering at Cambridge University after a gap year in Hamburg doing an internship with the renewable energy company, RWE.

Curriculum choice and preparation for life

Results as well as citizenship, personal development and interests outside of school have long been important for university admissions statements. While A levels are still regarded as the gold standard for university entry in the UK and accepted around the world, the appeal of the IB programme is that, as well as being as transferable and respected by employers and university admissions departments, it encourages whole-person development and embeds it in a cross-curricular approach.This links with a key issue of how to prepare students for jobs that do not exist yet. Citing the impact of AI on the future workplace, a study by the IBO assessed how IB programmes support future employability and skills. The report concludes that key competencies – mapped onto the IB curriculum – include creativity, critical thinking, communication, collaboration, mindfulness, curiosity, courage, resilience, ethics, leadership, metacognition and a growth mindset.Education for a World of Opportunity, published earlier this year by the conducted by IBSCA (the UK’s IB Schools and College’s Association) in collaboration with ACS International Schools, further found that two-thirds said the purpose of education is to develop children into well-rounded human beings (68%). A third (32%) said it is to create efficient workers for the future. While there were sectoral differences, personal and professional skills – like problem-solving, communication, critical thinking and reflection – were valued over subject-specific knowledge.“Educating to develop ethical and personally fulfilled human beings, who are prepared and equipped to be responsible members of local and global communities, is the key to unlocking the potential of the future workforce as we get them ready to thrive in a changing world," commented Richard Markham, chief executive of IBSCA UK and Ireland. "We are educating today for the jobs of the future, for roles and responsibilities within businesses which will use technology and systems that are either in their infancy or haven’t even been invented yet.”Like GCSEs, the IB's Middle Years Programme (MYP) is the internationally recognised precursor to IB Diploma and Career programmes, as well as A levels. The MYP can be alternative to GCSE/iGCSEs for international students, and is offered to all students aged 11-16 at ACS Egham, one of just 27 schools in the UK to offer the qualification and also announcing results this summer. IB schools like ACS Egham are using the IB's approach to hone young people's skills early on, emphasising the importance of making connections between studies in traditional subjects and the real world, fostering the development of skills for communication, intercultural understanding, and global engagement. This year, ACS Egham's students achieved an 89% pass rate, exceeding last year’s global average of 82%. Mark Wilson, Head of School at ACS Egham commented: “We are immensely proud of our Middle School students who continue to achieve academic excellence and are well prepared to embrace the challenges of the IB Diploma Programme (DP) or Career-related Programme (CP). We have no doubt this cohort will continue to excel in their final school years with us.”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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