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.
It comes as thousands of teenagers across the country received their GCSE exam 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 per cent) of UK GCSE entries were awarded the top grades – at least a seven or an A grade – this year, down by 4.3 percentage points on last year when 26.3 per cent of entries achieved the top grades.
However, this remains higher than the equivalent figure for 2019 – before the pandemic – of 20.8 per cent.
The figures, published by the Joint Council for Qualifications, cover GCSE entries from pupils in England, Wales and Northern Ireland.
Overall, there were about 203,000 fewer top grades (seven or 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 per cent in 2022 to 68.2 per cent this year – a drop of five percentage points, but higher than 67.3 per cent in 2019.
The overall rate for grades one or G or above is 98 per cent, down from 98.4 per cent in 2022 and 98.3 per cent in 2019.
“This year’s results recognise the fantastic achievements of students across the country. They have worked incredibly hard throughout the pandemic period to achieve these well-earned grades,” JCQ chief executive Margaret Farragher said.
“The 2023 results show that students are well equipped to continue their educational journey.”
In England, exams regulator Ofqual said this year’s GCSE results would be lower than last year and they would be similar to those in 2019.
But Ofqual has built protection into the grading process, which should enable a pupil to get the grade they would have received before the pandemic even if their quality of work is a little weaker this year.
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.
Last week, the proportion of A-level entries achieving top grades fell – with about 73,000 fewer top A-level grades than last year – but remained above pre-pandemic levels.
Girls continued their lead over boys for the top GCSE grades, with 24.9 per cent of entries awarded at least seven or A, compared with 19.1 per cent 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 per cent for girls, 22.6 per cent for boys) and from 2019 when girls led by 6.5 percentage points.
It is the narrowest lead enjoyed by girls at seven or A since 2009.
The gender gap has also narrowed for entries achieving a grade four or above.
According to figures from Ofqual, the number of 16-year-old pupils in England who received a nine – the highest grade under the numerical grading system – in all their subjects has nearly halved from last year.
Some 1,150 16-year-olds in England taking at least seven GCSEs achieved a grade nine 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 nine-one system, where nine is the highest.
A four is broadly equivalent to a C grade, and a seven is broadly equivalent to an A.
Business studies has seen the biggest jump in entries among major subjects this year – up 14.8 per cent on last year – while Spanish entries have increased by 11.3 per cent compared with 2022.
More than 390,000 certificates were awarded to pupils for Level 2 vocational and technical qualifications (VTQs) taken in schools and colleges alongside, or as an alternative, to GCSEs.
“An enormous amount of hard work has gone into these qualifications in often difficult circumstances and the young people receiving their results today deserve great credit for what they have achieved,” Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said.
“We would caution against direct comparisons between this year’s grades and those in 2019 because of the disproportionate impact of the pandemic and subsequent cost-of-living crisis on young people from disadvantaged backgrounds.
“It is likely that the outcomes for many of these young people will be affected by these factors and this may also impact on the results of schools which serve disadvantaged communities.
“The government has failed to grasp the gravity of this issue. It did not invest sufficiently in education recovery from the pandemic – causing its own recovery commissioner to resign in protest – and it has failed to address the high level of child poverty in the UK. We are concerned that this will lead to a widening of the attainment gap between rich and poor.”
Schools Minister Nick Gibb acknowledged that progress on closing the attainment gap for disadvantaged pupils had “been undone” during the pandemic.
“We did achieve a 9 per cent closing of that gap for secondary and we closed the gap by 13 per cent for primary, but that has been undone, as you say, by Covid, and now we need to get back to normality,” he told BBC Breakfast.
“We’ve got the recovery programme happening in our schools right now. And then we need to get back to the reform programme to make sure that we can continue to close that gap.”
In Scotland, the national results for the National 5 qualifications were published earlier in the month and showed that the pass rate was 78.8 per cent – down from 80.8 per cent last year but up from 78.2 per cent in 2019.