Fewer top GCSE grades predicted as pupils return to exams

Grades expected to fall as GCSE results move back to pre-pandemic marking system

Students open their GCSE results at the City of London Academy on August 12, 2021. Getty
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Fewer top grades will be awarded to this year’s GCSE pupils and more are expected to fail as girls’ lead over boys narrows, an education expert has suggested.

There could be about 230,000 fewer top grades in the UK compared with 2021, but 230,000 more than 2019 as results move back towards pre-pandemic grading, said Prof Alan Smithers, director of the Centre for Education and Employment Research at the University of Buckingham.

The pattern was likely to be similar to the change in A-Level results on Thursday, when grades fell from pandemic highs but remained above 2019 levels, Prof Smithers said.

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

Overall, 28.9 per cent of British GCSE entries were awarded one of the top grades, up by 2.7 percentage points on 2020.

In 2019, when exams were last held, only 20.8 per cent of entries achieved at least a 7 or an A grade.

Prof Smithers said this year, in which grades are expected to move back to about halfway between those of 2021 and 2019, will mean disappointment for many.

“In 2022, we can reasonably expect to see a drop in top grades, with many more failing to reach the pass level (C/4)," he said.

“In England, the biggest percentage fall will be at Grade 9s and many more will fall below Grade 4.

“We can take the A-Level results as pointers. At A-Level the top grades were cut, but not as far as the government was wanting, I suspect, because high marks were scored in the easier exams and lower grades for higher marks is going to be difficult to defend on appeal.”

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Prof Smithers said he expected girls to remain “a long way ahead of boys with only a small narrowing of the gap from the return to exams”.

In the latest A-Level results, girls continued to outperform boys overall, although the gap decreased.

The proportion of girls who received A or above was 2.2 percentage points higher than boys this year, compared with a 4.8 percentage points difference last year.

As with A-Levels, extra help was provided for GCSE students with the return to exams, including more generous grading, advance information on topics, and formulas and equation sheets for GCSE maths, physics and combined science exams.

“Girls have been a lot further ahead at GCSE than at A-Level, so I would not expect to see a significant impact on GCSEs, especially with the modified exams,” said Prof Smithers.

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Figures covering GCSE entries from students in England, Wales and Northern Ireland will be published by the Joint Council for Qualifications on Thursday.

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 9 is the highest.

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

Updated: August 21, 2022, 11:01 PM