GCSE students earn record results after exams scrapped for second year

Students open their GCSE results at CORE's City Academy in Birmingham. Picture date: Thursday August 12, 2021.
Students open their GCSE results at CORE's City Academy in Birmingham. Picture date: Thursday August 12, 2021.

Hundreds of thousands of teenagers in England, Wales and Northern Ireland are receiving grades to help them progress to sixth form, college or training

Published Last updated

Students across the country have been awarded record results after this year's exams were cancelled.

Hundreds of thousands of teenagers in England, Wales and Northern Ireland found out their results, with a record number of pupils earning the top grades.

The proportion of entries receiving the top grades is the highest on record. A total of 28.9% of entries were awarded 7/A or above, up from 26.2% in 2020.

Other key statistics include:

  • Some 77.1% of entries received a 4/C grade or above. This is another record high, and is up from 76.3% in 2020. Girls have extended their lead over boys in the top grades.
  • The proportion of female entries awarded 7/A or above was 33.4%, 9.0 percentage points higher than male entries (24.4%).
  • Last year, girls led boys by 8.0 percentage points (30.2% girls, 22.2% boys). This year’s figures are the highest on record for both girls and boys.

    But a surge in top grades – which were submitted by teachers after exams were cancelled for a second year – could make the job of admissions teams at colleges and sixth forms more difficult.

Last year, more than one in four (26.2%) of UK GCSE entries were awarded one of the three top grades, compared to a fifth (20.8%) in 2019 – the last year that exams were sat before the pandemic. More than three in four (76.3%) entries in England, Wales and Northern Ireland were awarded at least a 4 – which is broadly the equivalent of a C – last year, compared to 67.3% in 2019.

File photo dated 07/03/12 of a general view of pupils sitting an exam. GCSEs should be reformed or scrapped, according to a majority of school and college leaders polled by a teachers' union.
File photo dated 07/03/12 of a general view of pupils sitting an exam. GCSEs should be reformed or scrapped, according to a majority of school and college leaders polled by a teachers' union.

Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), is expecting pressure to be placed on admissions teams at sixth forms colleges and schools if grades are inflated this summer.

Mr Barton warned that some young people could be “turned away” from courses if centres cannot increase capacity due to limited space and staff.

He added: “I think what we’ll see admissions tutors doing on Thursday, and heads of sixth form, is doing their best to make sure that irrespective of grades a young person moves on to what they had wanted to do in terms of their course and the course best suited to them.

“Because what we don’t want is young people euphoric that they got higher grades than they had hoped for on results day, and then three or four weeks into a new term feeling out of their depth on a course which actually isn’t the appropriate course for them.

“I think there’ll be quite a lot of work going on behind the scenes, sometimes persuading young people and their parents to stick to what their course of action was.”

If more students achieve higher grades than anticipated – and they want to study A-levels rather than attend an further education (FE) college – it could cause logistical issues for sixth forms, he warned.

Mr Barton said: “That will leave some courses struggling to be able to run and some courses oversubscribed and definitely a need for further resources.

“Or some young people just simply disappointed and turned away because there is no way you could increase capacity because of the accommodation and number of teachers you’ve got.”

That will leave some courses struggling to be able to run and some courses oversubscribed and definitely a need for further resources.

Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL)

Sixth-form colleges are calling for more funding from the Government to cope with another likely surge of pupils who will be able to meet entry requirements. James Kewin, deputy chief executive of the Sixth Form Colleges Association, said: “Our members certainly saw an increase in the number of students that met the entry criteria last year, and we expect a similar increase this year.

“The Government has provided some welcome additional capital funding to help sixth forms expand, but that was only for one year, so we would like to see that extended for the longer term in this year’s spending review.”

He added: “Additional in-year revenue funding to meet the anticipated surge in demand would also be very welcome, particularly as sixth forms are funded based on the number of students they recruited the previous year.”

Last summer, the fiasco around grading led to thousands of A-level students having their results downgraded from school estimates by a controversial algorithm before Ofqual announced a U-turn. The proportion of GCSE entries awarded top grades rose to a record high last year after grades were allowed to be based on teachers’ assessments, if they were higher than the moderated grades given.

This year, teachers in England submitted their decisions on pupils’ grades after drawing on a range of evidence, including mock exams, coursework, and in-class assessments using questions by exam boards.

Olympic medal winning twins Jessica (left) and Jennifer Gadirova celebrate their GCSE results at Aylesbury Vale Academy in Buckinghamshire. Picture date: Thursday August 12, 2021.
Olympic medal winning twins Jessica (left) and Jennifer Gadirova celebrate their GCSE results at Aylesbury Vale Academy in Buckinghamshire. Picture date: Thursday August 12, 2021.

There will not be an algorithm used to moderate grades this summer. Professor Alan Smithers, director of the Centre for Education and Employment Research (CEER) at the University of Buckingham, has suggested more top grades could be awarded to GCSE pupils this year.

In a report, he warned: “Plentiful top grades make pupils and parents happy, but they are less helpful for those using the grades for admission to the next stage of education or recruitment to employment.”

Meanwhile, Lee Elliot Major, professor of social mobility at the University of Exeter, is concerned that poorer pupils without “sharp-elbowed parents” could be disadvantaged by a “wild west” post-16 admissions system.

He said: “I’m worried about those pupils who may have just missed out on GCSE grades, who will now see their options for a sixth-form place and the A-level subjects they can study limited.

“Sixth-form admissions are the wild west of the education system, with every sixth form determining its own selection criteria. “Pupils will face a different fate depending on where they happen to be educated. These fine judgments at such a young age can have impacts that last a lifetime.

“A particular concern for me are the prospects of poorer pupils who will not necessarily be backed up by sharp-elbowed parents fighting their corner.”

Traditional A*-G grades have been scrapped and replaced with a 9-1 system amid reforms, with 9 the highest result. A 4 is broadly equivalent to a C grade, and a 7 broadly equivalent to an A. Students receiving GCSE results in England will get numerical grades for all their subjects as all courses have moved over to the grading system.

Schools in Scotland have known their exam results since June.
Schools in Scotland have known their exam results since June.

Addressing concerns about possible grade inflation, Paul Whiteman, general secretary of school leaders’ union NAHT, said: “Grades have been arrived at in a completely unique way, so it would not be sensible to compare this year’s results with any other, and any talk of ‘grade inflation’ is unhelpful to students.”

Education Secretary Gavin Williamson said: “Students should feel proud of their achievements and will now be looking forward to taking their next steps.

“I am also hugely grateful to teachers and school leaders for their hard work to ensure students get the grades they deserve and need to progress to the next stage of their lives.

“There have never been so many great options available for young people, whether that’s going on to study A-levels, our pioneering T Levels, starting an apprenticeship or a traineeship.

“Whatever option young people choose, they can do so with the confidence it will give them the skills and knowledge to get on in life.”

In Scotland, the national results for the National 5 qualifications were published on Tuesday, which showed that the rate of students receiving between an A and a C – known as the attainment rate – fell. Students in Scotland have known their individual grades since the end of June.