GCSE results day 2023, London: Top grades fall but above remain above pre-pandemic levels

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Sadiq Khan congratulated GCSE students but said “there are many different pathways to success”.

The number of top GCSE grades has fallen from last year but still remains higher than before the pandemic, national figures have revealed.

Hundreds of thousands of teenagers received their GCSE exam results this Thursday (24 August), in a year when students in England were warned of a “shock” drop in grades while examiners attempt to bring results back in-line with 2019 - the last year before the pandemic. This came after record grades were achieved in 2020 and 2021, when marks were based on assessments by teachers.

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Across England, Wales, and Northern Ireland this year, more than a fifth (22.0%) of GCSE entries were awarded the top grades - either a 7, 8, or 9, or an A or A*. This is down from 2022, when 26.3% achieved the top grades, but up from 2019, when 20.8% achieved the top grades, according to figures published by the Joint Council for Qualifications (JCQ).

Overall, there were around 203,000 fewer top grades in 2023 compared with 2022, but there were 142,000 more top grades than in 2019. The same pattern has been followed for those achieving at least “a standard pass” - a 4 or C - as it has fallen from 73.2% last year to 68.2% this year, but is higher than the 67.3% from 2019.

These drops were more obvious in England than in Wales and Northern Ireland, as while England’s exams regulator Ofqual vowed a return to pre-pandemic grading this year, examiners in Wales and Northern Ireland said they would not make the full shift until 2024. Therefore, the number of 15 and 16-year-olds in England who received a 9 in all of their subjects – the highest grade under the new numerical grading system – has nearly halved from last year, from 2,193 to 1,150.

While traditional A*-G grades are still used in Northern Ireland and Wales, in England, these were replaced with a 9-1 system between 2017 and 2020 - where 9 is the highest and 1 is the lowest. A 7 is broadly equivalent to an A, and a 4 is broadly equivalent to a C.

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Nada Tazouti (centre) celebrates her GCSE results at the City of London Academy. (Photo by Peter Nicholls/Getty Images)Nada Tazouti (centre) celebrates her GCSE results at the City of London Academy. (Photo by Peter Nicholls/Getty Images)
Nada Tazouti (centre) celebrates her GCSE results at the City of London Academy. (Photo by Peter Nicholls/Getty Images) | Getty Images

The statistics also reveal that while girls have continued their lead over boys for the top grades in GCSEs, with 24.9% of girls awarded a 7/A or above compared with 19.1% of boys, this gap has narrowed from last year - when girls stood at 30.0% and boys stood at 22.6%. This is the narrowest lead held by girls since 2009.

The GCSE exam results mirror what happened in A-Levels last Thursday (17 August), when the number of top grades fell - with some 73,000 fewer As and A*s than in 2022 - but remained above pre-pandemic levels.

Lisa Nguyen (L) and Scarlett Granger (R) react as they receive their GCSE results at the City of London Academy on August 24, 2023 in London, England. Credit: Getty ImagesLisa Nguyen (L) and Scarlett Granger (R) react as they receive their GCSE results at the City of London Academy on August 24, 2023 in London, England. Credit: Getty Images
Lisa Nguyen (L) and Scarlett Granger (R) react as they receive their GCSE results at the City of London Academy on August 24, 2023 in London, England. Credit: Getty Images | Getty Images

‘Humane system’

The anticipated drop in grades for 2023 GCSEs has prompted a lot of discussion around the exams. There have been calls for a more “humane” system for teenagers who fail Maths or English to prevent them becoming trapped in a “demoralising” cycle of retakes, as well as insistence from the Tony Blair Institute that the UK needs a new way of assessing students entirely.

Others have said the change in grading is unfair on this cohort of students, arguing that their education was still disrupted by the pandemic but they have not received the same leniency as those in 2020, 2021, or 2022. However, Ofqual ensured pupils that it had built protection into its grading this year, 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.

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Association of School and College Leaders

Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), said: “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.”

He said he would “caution” direct comparisons between 2023 and 2019, because of the “disproportionate impact of the pandemic and subsequent cost-of-living crisis on young people from disadvantaged backgrounds.”

He continued: “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.”

Mr Barton also argued that the government has “failed to grasp the gravity of this issue”. He said: “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.”

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Department for Education

Schools minister Nick Gibb acknowledged that progress on closing the attainment gap for disadvantaged pupils had “been undone” during the pandemic. He told BBC Breakfast: “We did achieve a 9% closing of that gap for secondary and we closed the gap by 13% for primary, but that has been undone, as you say, by Covid, and now we need to get back to normality.

“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.”

Margaret Farragher, chief executive of the JCQ, said: “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. The 2023 results show that students are well equipped to continue their educational journey.”

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% – down from 80.8% last year, but up from 78.2% in 2019.

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Mayor of London Sadiq Khan

Sadiq Khan said: “I would like to congratulate every young Londoner who is receiving their GCSE results today. This is a proud day for students, their families, friends and teachers and it’s so important that we recognise the hard work, dedication, and commitment from everyone who has helped these young people reach this milestone in their lives.

“I hope that you received the grades you were expecting or hoped for today, but if things haven’t gone to plan, please be reassured that there are many different pathways to success and I would encourage everyone to explore potential options by talking to your teachers, parents, or contact the National Careers Service for advice and support.”

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