GCSE results day: Top grades reach record high after exams cancelled for second year

Video report by ITV News UK Editor Paul Brand

The number of GCSE entries awarded top grades has surged to an all-time high, after exams were cancelled for the second year in a row due to Covid-19.

Hundreds of thousands of students are receiving their results on Thursday morning, with results determined by teachers.

The replacement system uses teachers' judgements for grading, with pupils only assessed on what they have been taught during the pandemic.

Amira Adrwish reacts as she opens her GCSE results at CORE's City Academy in Birmingham. Credit: PA

Overall, 28.9% of UK GCSE entries were awarded one of the three top grades this year, up by 2.7 percentage points on 2020 when 26.2% achieved the top grades, figures for England, Wales and Northern Ireland show.

By contrast, in 2019, when exams were last sat, only a fifth of entries scored at least a 7 – the equivalent of an A grade.

The attainment difference between girls and boys has widened, with the gap between boys and girls achieving one of the top three grades rising from eight percentage points in 2020 to nine percentage points this year.

The government seems reluctant to make big changes to GCSE's - are there likely to be any adjustments to how they work?

According to the exam regulator Ofqual, the number of 16-year-old students in England who entered seven or more GCSEs and received a 9 – the highest grade under the numerical grading system – in all subjects has risen.

Some 3,606 students in England received straight 9s this summer, compared with 2,645 in 2020 and 837 in 2019.

The regulator is adamant that exams will return next year and it is Ofqual that makes the final recommendation to ministers in the autumn.

Simon Lebus, interim chief regulator of Ofqual, told ITV News: "I think we need to return to an exam system, I think that's the fairest way of doing things and the best and most sustainable approach".

Ofqual boss Simon Lebus says a return to exams is 'the fairest way of doing things'

"What we've done this year is not usual," he added.

"It's an exceptional set of arrangements for an exceptional set of circumstances - next year, when we go back to exams, we'll need to go back to a grading system that resembles what happens in normal years.

"The challenge is - does that happen in one fell swoop or do we go back through a series of steps to the 'old normal'".

What the data tells us about the 2021 GCSE results

Top grades (7/As and above) rose 2.7 percentage points to 28.9%, while grades 4/Cs and above increased by 0.8 percentage points to 76.3%.

This is a smaller rise than last year, which was the first time exams were cancelled because of the pandemic, with teacher assessed grades being used instead.

State grammar schools in England by far achieved the highest scores, with more than 68% of entries awarded grades 7 and above, an increase of almost three percentage points compared with last year.

Whereas, 20% of pupils at state comprehensive schools received top grades.

Independent schools have seen the largest absolute increase in the highest grades compared with other types of schools and colleges – up four percentage points on last year.

Some 28.1% of entries at academies achieved at least a grade 7 this year, a 2.2 percentage point increase from last year, when 25.9% of entries were awarded top grades.

Reacting to today's results, Labour leader Keir Starmer blamed the government for the widening gap between state and private schools.

"We had huge inequality before we went into this pandemic. It has just got worse- and a lot of that is down to the way that the education secretary and the government have handled this, with a chaotic system," he said.

Keir Starmer said the government would be awarded a 'U' for tackling inequality

He continued: "They should have had a plan B from the start. It was obvious that we might have had to cancel exams. They did not put a plan in place."

The Labour leader also called for the resignation of Gavin Williamson as Education Secretary.

He branded the system "chaotic" and accused the government of failing to have a "plan B" on exams.

"It's pretty astonishing the Education Secretary is still in post," he added.

The Labour leader urged for the resignation of Gavin Williamson as Education Secretary

The GCSE figures, published by the Joint Council for Qualifications (JCQ), cover GCSE entries from students in England, Wales and Northern Ireland.

More than three in four (77.1%) of UK entries were awarded at least a 4 last year, which is up by 0.8 percentage points on last year when 76.3% achieved the grades.

In 2019, just over two in three (67.3%) entries achieved at least a grade 4.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson has congratulated the young people receiving their GCSE results today, thanking them "for preserving and for getting on with it" after a tough year.

The GCSE results come after the proportion of A-level entries awarded an A grade or higher surged to an all-time high on Tuesday.

Schools minister Nick Gibb praised teachers for their efforts to ensure that teacher-assessed grades worked this year to deliver GCSE results, but said the system will not be used in the long term.

Last summer, the fiasco around grading led to thousands of A-level students having their results downgraded from school estimates by a controversial algorithm before Ofqual announced a U-turn.

The proportion of GCSE entries awarded top grades rose to a record high last year after grades were allowed to be based on teachers’ assessments, if they were higher than the moderated grades given.

There has not been an algorithm used to moderate grades this summer.

Olympic medal winning twins Jessica (left) and Jennifer Gadirova celebrate their GCSE results at Aylesbury Vale Academy in Buckinghamshire. Credit: PA

Traditional A*-G grades have been scrapped and replaced with a 9-1 system amid reforms, with 9 the highest result. A 4 is broadly equivalent to a C grade, and a 7 broadly equivalent to an A.

In Scotland, the national results for the National 5 qualifications were published on Tuesday, which showed that the rate of students receiving between an A and a C – known as the attainment rate – fell.

Students in Scotland have known their individual grades since the end of June.