GCSE pass rates down from 2021 record high but remain above pre-pandemic levels

Today's GCSE results show that the attainment gap in top grades between the north and south of England has widened, ITV News Social Affairs Correspondent Sarah Corker reports.

Top grades for GCSEs are down on last year – but remain higher than pre-pandemic levels, as UK students received their results on Thursday.

In 2021, the proportion of GCSE entries awarded top grades surged to an all-time high after exams were cancelled for the second year in a row due to Covid-19 and pupils were given results determined by their teachers.

Similar to the pattern with A-level results, published last week, it had been expected that grades would drop below last year, but remain above those from 2019 as students returned to sitting exams for the first time in three years.

Figures published by the Joint Council for Qualifications (JCQ) – covering GCSE entries from students predominantly in England, Wales and Northern Ireland – showed top grades of 7/A have fallen from 28.9% in 2021 to 26.3% this year, a drop of 2.6 percentage points.

But this remains higher than the equivalent figure for 2019 of 20.8%.

The proportion of entries receiving a 4/C – considered a pass – dropped from 77.1% in 2021 to 73.2% this year, a fall of 3.9 percentage points, but higher than 67.3% in 2019.

Girls continued their lead over boys this year, with 30.0% of entries achieving a 7/A, compared with 22.6% for males.

The gap has closed slightly from last year, when 33.4% of female entries were awarded 7/A or above compared with 24.4% for males, a lead of 9.0 percentage points.

There were also stark regional disparities within this year's results. 22.4% of students in the north-east achieved a 7/A or above - the lowest share in the country.

London had the highest, with 32.6% receiving the top grades.

When asked about this attainment gap, education minister Will Quince said it was partly down to "attracting high quality, high calibre teachers". He also cited the pandemic and "socio-economic factors".

However, Labour accused successive Conservative governments of saddling students with "a legacy of unequal outcomes".

Percentage of GCSE entries awarded 7/A or above by region, with the equivalent figures for 2021 and the pre-pandemic year of 2019

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While traditional A*-G grades are used in Northern Ireland and Wales, in England these have been replaced in with a 9-1 system, where nine is the highest.

A 4 is broadly equivalent to a C grade, and a 7 is broadly equivalent to an A.

In England, 26.0% of candidates got a 7/A or above, compared to 25.1% in Wales and 37.0% in Northern Ireland.

Pupils receiving their GCSE results at the Oasis Academy Hadley in Ponders End, London. Credit: PA

Separate figures, published by exams regulator Ofqual, showed that 2,193 16-year-olds in England got grade 9 in all their subjects – including 13 students who did at least 12 GCSEs.

Falaq Rani, a student at Rockwood Academy in Birmingham spoke of the impact Covid had on those her age.

“The year we missed, I felt like we were so behind. The teachers were worried we weren’t going to be able to do it, but now I’m like ‘yeah, I did it’,” the 16-year-old said.

Percentage of GCSE entries awarded a pass (4/C or above) by region

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Gulam-Mustafaa Aslam needed certain grades to secure his offer of an apprenticeship at huge West Midlands’ employer Jaguar Land Rover (JLR), so Thursday was an “anxious” day for him. But after opening his results, Gulam was keen to get home and tell his family the good news.

“I needed five fours and guaranteed maths and English; I got a six and five in English, a five in maths and I passed everything else,” he said.

Education minister Will Quince reflects on the regional attainment gap

Kath Thomas, interim chief executive officer of JCQ, congratulated students getting their results “after lots of hard work and all the challenges of the pandemic”.

She said: “We’re pleased that exams are back, as they’re the fairest way to assess students and give everyone the chance to show what they know.

“As planned – and as with last week’s A-level results, these results are higher than the last set of summer exams in 2019, but lower than last year’s teacher-assessed grades.”

Jonathan Ikazaboh gives a thumbs-up after reading his grades Credit: Joe Giddens/PA

Meanwhile, exam board Pearson warned this week that thousands of students could miss out on being issued BTec (Business and Technology Education Council) results on Thursday.

It said that changes this year, made in order to take into account disruption to teaching and learning during the pandemic, had “added more complexity to the process” and that without full information they are unable to award students their results.