As students discover their GCSE results on Thursday, the Tories have been accused of leaving a “legacy of unequal outcomes” that are holding back children and communities.
Statistics show that last year fewer than four in 10 students in Knowsley, in the North West, achieved a pass in English and maths – more than 20 percentage points lower than the national average.
Labour cited this as being in contrast to other areas including Trafford in Greater Manchester, Kingston-upon-Thames in south-west London, and Buckinghamshire, where some seven in 10 young people got a pass in both subjects.
Following the publication of A-level results last week, social mobility charity The Sutton Trust said regional gaps are growing and the differences in levels of achievement at private schools compared with state schools and colleges are still above 2019 levels.
Similarly to the pattern with A-level results, published last week, it is expected that grades will drop below last year, but remain above those from 2019.
Shadow schools minister Stephen Morgan said: “Young people receiving results have worked incredibly hard, but 12 years of Conservative governments has left a legacy of unequal outcomes that are holding back kids and holding back communities.
“As we head into results day, every child should know that they are supported by a government which believes in them and their ability to succeed, but sadly that’s simply not the case. The Conservatives are failing our children.
“Labour is ambitious for every child. We would end tax breaks for private schools and invest in thousands of new teachers, to give every child the brilliant teaching and school experience they need to achieve and thrive.”
One education expert has predicted that, in line with the move back towards pre-pandemic grading, there could be some 230,000 fewer top grades in the UK compared with 2021, but 230,000 more than 2019.
Professor Alan Smithers, director of the Centre for Education and Employment Research at the University of Buckingham, said he expects top grades to fall, with more pupils failing and a slight narrowing of the girls’ lead over boys.
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The Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) said this week’s results are likely to be “uneven” across different schools and areas, and reflect the “turbulent circumstances” of the pandemic.
ASCL general secretary Geoff Barton appealed to schools watchdog Ofsted to bear these factors in mind and not to “rush to judgments”.
He said that, despite schools’ best efforts to support pupils with remote education and to plug learning gaps, there will “inevitably” have been an impact on learning.
Claiming the government has had a “lacklustre and chaotic support for education recovery”, he added: “It is important to understand this year’s results at school and pupil level in this context and we would urge Ofsted and regional schools commissioners in particular not to rush to judgments.”
Ofsted said it does not base its judgments on exam results and test scores but rather uses data “in context, as a starting point for our discussions with school leaders about what they are teaching children and how they are running their school”.
A spokeswoman for the Department for Education said: “We have set out a range of measures to help level up education across England, including targeted support both for individual pupils who fall behind and whole areas of the country where standards are weakest.
“This is alongside £5 billion to help young people to recover from the impact of the pandemic, including £1.5 billion for tutoring programmes.
“Pupil Premium funding is also increasing to more than £2.6 billion in 2022/23, whilst an additional £1 billion is allowing us to extend the Recovery Premium for the next two academic years – funding which schools can use to offer targeted academic and emotional support to disadvantaged pupils.”
Last year, 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 students were instead given results determined by their teachers.
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.