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Covid disruption must still be taken into account in 2023 GCSEs, say schools – The Guardian

Calls for mitigation measures to remain come on day 2022 grades show downturn in line with official policy
Headteachers in England are calling on ministers to delay the return of pre-pandemic exam conditions for another year, after GCSE results showed a disturbing gap in attainment between pupils in the north and south.
On the day that about 600,000 pupils in England in year 11 received their GCSE results, the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) said pupils due to face exams next summer should have the same additional support as this year’s cohort because they too have been disadvantaged by Covid.
The government had hoped that exam conditions and grades would return to pre-pandemic levels next year after a gradual glide back to normality, but with the threat of further waves of infection over the winter more disruption could lie ahead.
Thursday’s results, awarded to the first cohort to sit summer examinations in three years, revealed considerable regional variations across England, with London in particular increasing its lead in top grades over the rest of the country. Figures published by Ofqual showed a significant gap of more than 10 percentage points between London and the regions with the lowest proportion of top grades.
Just 22.4% of grades in Yorkshire and the north-east of England were 7 or above, compared with 32.6% in London. Attendance statistics show that year 11 pupils in London have missed less school over the last two years overall than their peers in other regions, while pupils in northern regions have tended to miss the most time in school.
Students sitting GCSEs this summer were helped by a number of adaptations to their exams – for example, being given some choice over content and advance warning of topics. But only around a third of the grade inflation that has accumulated since 2019 as a result of teacher assessments has been erased from top grades this year, suggesting a more painful drop will be required next year.
Geoff Barton, the ASCL general secretary, said: “Moving to this midpoint was done to give these pupils more leeway than directly returning to the 2019 standard in order to mitigate the impact of Covid on their education. Adaptations were also made to exams for this reason.
“The government and Ofqual will now need to decide whether to put mitigations in place for next year. The strong indication we are hearing from school and college leaders is that this must happen because next year’s cohort will have also been heavily impacted by Covid. This is particularly important given the likelihood of more waves of infections during the autumn and winter.”
Thursday’s results show the proportion of top grades for 16-year-olds in England has fallen since last year – though they are still up on pre-pandemic levels – with the overall pass rate also down.
Top grades of 7 and above – equivalent to A and A* – were down three percentage points this summer, meaning results are still significantly higher than the midway point Ofqual was aiming for, which will require an even bigger fall next year in order to return to pre-pandemic levels.
Meanwhile, the proportion of pupils achieving grade 4 and above – 4 is a pass – also fell by four percentage points, from 79% last year to 75%, meaning thousands more pupils could now face resits in English and maths.
Ofqual said on Thursday the expectation was that GCSEs would to return outcomes seen in 2019 next year, as planned.
Richard Garrett, Ofqual’s director of policy and strategic relationships, said the regulator would reflect on this year’s results and confirm arrangements for next year. “But I would stress that the announcement that we made last September, set out our expectation over the next two years and a clear direction of travel.”
A Department for Education spokesperson said: “Our intention is to return to the carefully designed and well-established pre-pandemic assessment arrangements as quickly as possible, given they are the best and fairest way of assessing what students know and can do.
“Working with Ofqual, the exams regulator, we will evaluate the delivery of arrangements this year before finalising 2023 plans in the autumn.
Schools North East, which aims to improve outcomes for young people in the north-east of England, said the north-south gap showed that adaptations made this year had not gone far enough. The group’s director, Chris Zarraga, said the pandemic had exacerbated “serious perennial issues, especially that of long-term deprivation”, and called for a support plan.
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Private schools had the biggest drop in the proportion of top grades awarded, down by eight percentage points this year compared with assessed grades in 2021. In contrast the proportion of top grades awarded to pupils at academies and grammar schools in England fell by just over two percentage points.
Nevertheless the gap between private and state schools in England has grown slightly compared with 2019, with students in independent schools achieving top grades at more than twice the rate of those attending academies and secondary comprehensive schools.
Lee Elliot Major, professor of social mobility from the University of Exeter, said: “These results reveal the stark academic divides that define our school system, with GCSE entries from independent schools still twice as likely to be graded 7 or A and above than entries from state academies (53% versus 25.6%).”
Girls continued to outperform boys – nearly one in three entries by girls in England got a grade 7 or above (30.7%) – though the gender gap at the highest grades narrowed by 1.6 percentage points compared with last year. A total of 2,193 16-year-olds in England got grade 9 in all subjects, including 13 students who completed 12 GCSEs.
The results come after two years of unprecedented disruption in schools due to the Covid pandemic, when schools closed, learning moved online and exams were cancelled and replaced with teacher assessment. Even once schools reopened, the disruption continued with large groups of children being sent home after contact with the virus and high levels of teacher absence.
In Wales close to 70% of results were C grade or higher, and 69.7% of entries by 16-year-olds got at least a C, compared with 63.8% in 2019, the last time formal exams were taken. Jeremy Miles, Wales’s minister for education, said: “I welcome these results as we transition back to exams this year – it’s great to see what our learners have achieved.”
In Northern Ireland​, 37% of GCSE entries received A or 7 and above, slightly below the 40% of entries that received top grades last year but above the 30% that did so in 2019. Some 90% of entries received a C or better, similar to last year but above the 82% recorded in 2019.


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