GCSE top grades fall but remain above pre-pandemic levels

Thursday is GCSE results day - and the first since grade boundaries returned to what they were before the pandemic, as ITV News' Social Affairs Correspondent Stacey Foster reports

By Elaine McCallig, ITV News Digital Content Producer

The proportion of GCSE entries awarded top grades has fallen from last year but is higher than before the Covid-19 pandemic, national figures show.

Hundreds of thousands of teenagers across the country received their GCSE and BTec results on Thursday in a year when efforts have been made in England to return grading to pre-pandemic levels.

More than a fifth (22.0%) of UK GCSE entries were awarded the top grades – at least a 7 or an A grade – this year, down by 4.3 percentage points on last year when 26.3% of entries achieved the top grades.

However, this remains higher than the equivalent figure for 2019 – before the pandemic – of 20.8%. The figures, published by the Joint Council for Qualifications (JCQ), cover GCSE entries from students in England, Wales and Northern Ireland.

It comes after Covid-19 led to an increase in top grades in 2020 and 2021, with results based on teacher assessments instead of exams.

On Thursday morning, more than 390,000 certificates were awarded to students for Level 2 vocational and technical qualifications (VTQs) taken in schools and colleges alongside, or as an alternative, to GCSEs.

Aspiring doctor Ashta Parbhoo in Leicester was nervous this morning, but was relieved when she opened her results

Overall, there were around 203,000 fewer top grades (7/A) compared with last year, but there were 142,000 more top grades awarded this year than in 2019.

The proportion of entries getting at least a 4 or a C grade – considered a “standard pass” – has fallen from 73.2% in 2022 to 68.2% this year – a drop of five percentage points, but higher than 67.3% in 2019.

The overall rate for grades 1/G or above is 98%, down from 98.4% in 2022 and 98.3% in 2019.

Some sixth forms and colleges could decide to admit pupils with lower GCSE grades on to A-level courses this summer compared with recent years.

Greater attention may be given to the induction process for this cohort of students starting sixth form next month to ensure “they cope as best they can”, the leader of a headteachers’ union has suggested.

What were the most popular GCSE subjects this year?

  • The most popular subject in terms of entries this year was science double award, with a total of 935,436 entries, up 3.5% on 2022.

  • Maths remains the second most popular subject, with 821,322 entries, up 4.9% on 2022.

  • Business studies saw the biggest percentage rise for any subject with at least 100,000 entries, jumping by 14.8% from 107,283 last year to 123,166 this year.

  • Statistics saw the biggest percentage rise for any subject with at least 10,000 entries, increasing by 20.4% from 22,066 in 2022 to 26,559 in 2023.

  • Music saw the largest percentage fall for any subject with at least 10,000 entries, falling by 12.5% from 37,705 last year to 32,980 this year.

Last week, the proportion of A-level entries achieving top grades fell – with some 73,000 fewer top A-level grades than last year – but it remained above pre-pandemic levels.

Girls continued their lead over boys for the top GCSE grades, with 24.9% of entries awarded 7/A or above compared with 19.1% for males – a gap of 5.8 percentage points.

But the gap has narrowed from last year when girls were ahead of boys by 7.4 percentage points (30.0% girls, 22.6% boys) and from 2019 when girls led by 6.5 percentage points.

It is the narrowest lead enjoyed by girls at 7/A since 2009.

The gender gap has also narrowed for entries achieving a grade 4 or above.

Credit: PA

According to figures from Ofqual, the number of 16-year-old students in England who received a 9 – the highest grade under the numerical grading system – in all their subjects has nearly halved from last year.

Some 1,160 16-year-olds in England taking at least seven GCSEs achieved a grade 9 in all their subjects, compared with 2,193 last year and 837 in 2019.

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

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

Students received their A-level results last week Credit: PA

Overall, 28.4% of GCSE entries in London were awarded a grade 7 or above this year, compared with 17.6% of entries in the North East – a gap of 10.8 percentage points.

Last year, the gap was 10.2 percentage points. It has increased every year since 2017.

Chris Zarraga, director of Schools North East, said pandemic recovery policies have been "too London-centric".

Mr Zarraga said: “If policy continues to be ‘one size fits all’, we risk a continuing widening of the gap between the North East and London.

“Recognition of the perennial contextual challenges, and the impact of the pandemic on more than just those students that had exams cancelled, is long overdue.”

Some 46.6% of GCSE entries at private schools in England were awarded grades 7 or above this year, down from 53.1% in 2022 and 47.2% in 2019.

In comprehensive schools in England, the figure was 19.1% – down from 23.2% last year, but up from 18.6% in 2019.

The gap in top grades between private schools and comprehensive schools was still 27.5 percentage points, but it has narrowed on last year.

Pupils at Ark Greenwich Free School, London, receiving their GCSE results Credit: PA

When it comes to advancing to sixth-form colleges and further education colleges, Schools Minister Nick Gibb told ITV News: "Students will be treated very fairly, we know they have been through disruption. But it was important to get back to 2019 grading after the teacher assessed grades led to higher levels of top grades than normal."

He said the government is attempting to "level up" the quality of education across all regions of the country.

"In some parts of the country there are higher proportions of disadvantaged children and that can lead to differential results," he said.

"All our reforms since 2010 have been about closing that gap between children from disadvantaged backgrounds and their more advantaged peers, and we did close that gap by nine per cent prior to the pandemic - it widened during the pandemic - now we need to get back to that pre-pandemic position."

Education Secretary Gillian Keegan talks to a student who has just received their GCSE results Credit: PA

Shadow Schools Minister Stephen Morgan this morning told ITV Anglia the disparity in results across the country is evidence that the government's levelling up efforts have failed.

"We know that children from disadvantaged communities are not going to do as well [in exams] as children in more affluent areas and I think that's the legacy of 13 years of Conservative government," he said.

Education Secretary Gillian Keegan played down suggestions that the attainment gap was growing in secondary schools, but admitted it had “taken a step back” in recent years.

Geoff Barton, general secretary of the ASCL, earlier suggested the government did not invest sufficiently in education recovery from the pandemic, and had failed to address the high level of child poverty in the UK.

Education Secretary Gillian Keegan shares advice for students who did not get the results they hoped for today

Speaking today, she said: “The attainment gap was actually narrowing quite considerably from 2010 to before the pandemic. Under this Conservative government we got it down 9.1%, which was amazing and we’re really pleased with that.

“Now it has taken a step back in the pandemic. We’ve put £5 billion into catch-up, nearly four million catch-up tutoring courses have been taken and you see the evidence of that catch-up in the results today.”

Ms Keegan added it was “worth persevering with maths and English” when asked whether it was time to scrap compulsory re-sits in the subjects.

How did students in your region do in their GCSEs?

Here are the percentage of GCSE entries awarded the top grades (7/A or above) by nation and region, with the equivalent figures for 2022 and the pre-pandemic year of 2019:

  • North-east England 17.6% (2022: 22.4%; 2019: 16.4%)

  • North-west England 18.6% (2022: 23.1%; 2019: 18.6%)

  • Yorkshire & the Humber 18.2% (2022: 22.4%; 2019: 17.8%)

  • West Midlands 18.4% (2022: 22.8%; 2019: 18.1%)

  • East Midlands 18.5% (2022: 22.5%; 2019: 18.3%)

  • Eastern England 21.9% (2022: 26.2%; 2019: 20.5%)

  • South-west England 20.8% (2022: 25.3%; 2019: 20.4%)

  • South-east England 24.4% (2022: 29.2%; 2019: 23.5%)

  • London 28.4% (2022: 32.6%; 2019: 25.7%)

  • England 21.6% (2022: 26.0%; 2019: 20.7%)

  • Wales 21.7% (2022: 25.1%; 2019: 18.4%)

  • Northern Ireland 34.5% (2022: 37.0%; 2019: 30.5%)

  • All 22.0% (2022: 26.3%; 2019: 20.8%)

Here is the GCSE pass rate (entries awarded 4/C or above) by nation and region:

  • North-east England 65.3% (2022: 71.2%; 2019: 63.8%)

  • North-west England 64.8% (2022: 70.3%; 2019: 64.9%)

  • Yorkshire & the Humber 64.4% (2022: 69.6%; 2019: 64.1%)

  • West Midlands 63.9% (2022: 69.9%; 2019: 63.8%)

  • East Midlands 65.8% (2022: 71.5%; 2019: 65.8%)

  • Eastern England 68.6% (2022: 73.7%; 2019: 67.1%)

  • South-west England 69.2% (2022: 74.2%; 2019: 68.3%)

  • South-east England 70.7% (2022: 75.5%; 2019: 70.2%)

  • London 72.6% (2022: 76.7%; 2019: 70.6%)

  • England 67.8% (2022: 73.0%; 2019: 67.1%)

  • Wales 64.9% (2022: 68.6%; 2019: 62.8%)

  • Northern Ireland 86.8% (2022: 90.0%; 2019: 82.2%)

  • All 68.2% (2022: 73.2%; 2019: 67.3%)

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