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GCSE Results Day 2021: The national picture and how teachers graded students as record numbers reach top grades

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As GCSE students learned their results this morning, a higher proportion of them than ever before were celebrating top grades.

Exams were cancelled for the second year in a row due to Covid-19. This meant teachers determined the grades they should be given and assessed them only on what they have been taught during the pandemic.

GCSE grades over time. Graph: PA
GCSE grades over time. Graph: PA

Overall, 28.9 per cent of UK GCSE entries were awarded one of the top grades this year, up by 2.7 percentage points on last year (26.2 per cent), figures for England, Wales and Northern Ireland show.

By comparison, in 2019, when exams were last held, only a fifth (20.8 per cent) of entries achieved at least a 7 or an A grade.

The figures show that 7.4 per cent of entries in England were awarded a grade 9, compared with 6.3 per cent last year.

Girls have pulled further ahead than boys amid the rise in top grades this year.

The gap between boys and girls achieving one of the top grades has risen from eight percentage points in 2020 to nine percentage points this year.

Ofqual figures show the number of 16-year-old students in England who entered seven or more GCSEs and received a 9 – the highest grade under the numerical grading system – in all subjects has risen.

Some 3,606 students in England received straight 9s this summer, compared with 2,645 in 2020 and 837 in 2019.

GCSE grades over time. Graph: PA
GCSE grades over time. Graph: PA

The proportion of entries getting at least a 4 or a C grade is also a record high.

A total of 77.1 per cent of UK entries scored a C/4 or above last year, which is up by 0.8 percentage points on last year when 76.3 per cent achieved the grades.

In 2019, just over two thirds (67.3 per cent) of entries achieved at least a 4 or C grade.

The figures, published by the Joint Council for Qualifications (JCQ), cover GCSE entries from students in England, Wales and Northern Ireland.

The grading system explained

Traditional A*-G grades have been scrapped in England and replaced with a 9-1 system amid reforms, with 9 the highest. A 4 is broadly equivalent to a C grade, and a 7 broadly equivalent to an A.

How did private schools and academies fare?

Analysis by Ofqual found that 61.2 per cent of GCSE entries from private schools in England were awarded a grade 7 or above this year, compared with 57.2 per cent in 2020 and 46.6 per cent in 2019.

Independent schools have seen the largest absolute increase in the highest grades compared with other types of schools and colleges – up four percentage points on last year.

Some 28.1 per cent of entries at academies achieved at least a grade 7 this year, a 2.2 percentage point increase from last year, when 25.9 per cent of entries were awarded top grades.

GCSE students are opening their results today
GCSE students are opening their results today

How were grades assessed this 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, following the U-turn.

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

On Tuesday, the proportion of A-level entries awarded top grades reached a record high after exams were cancelled, with 44.8% achieving an A or above.

No algorithm was used this year to moderate grades.

Instead, schools and colleges in England were asked to provide samples of student work to exam boards, as well as evidence used to determine the grades for the students selected, as part of quality assurance (QA) checks.

Random and targeted sample checks of evidence were also carried out after grades were submitted.

Work from A-level and GCSE students from 1,101 centres in England, around one in five schools and colleges, was scrutinised by exam boards.

For 85 per cent of the schools and colleges whose students’ work was scrutinised as part of QA checks, the regulator said the subject experts were satisfied that the evidence supported the teacher-assessed grades that were submitted.

For the remaining 15 per cent, professional discussions took place between teachers and curriculum leads in schools and colleges with external subject experts and, where necessary, centres reviewed and revised their grades.

This represented less than 1 per cent of all the GCSE and A-level grades issued.

‘Systems are not directly comparable’

Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), said: “These results show a small increase in top grades compared to last year, but a more pronounced difference in the distribution of grades compared to 2019, when public exams were last held.

“It is important to emphasise that the system of teacher assessment under which these pupils have been assessed is different from public exams and is therefore not directly comparable.

“The GCSE grades awarded to these young people are a fair and accurate reflection of their performance under the robust system used this year, which will allow them to progress to post-16 courses and apprenticeships in the normal way.”

Dr Philip Wright, director-general of JCQ, said: “On behalf of JCQ and the exam boards, I would like to congratulate all students receiving their results today.

“The impact of Covid has undoubtedly provided a difficult chapter in their education journey and their resilience is to be applauded. We wish them all the best as they take their next steps in life.”

He added: “Teachers used their professional judgment and submitted the grades and evidence in good time for us to check and award grades today.

“Their efforts will allow students to swiftly progress on to the next stages of their education or training.”

Schools minister Nick Gibb said pupils receiving their GCSEs have been through an “exceptional year” because of the coronavirus pandemic.

He told Sky News: “This is an exceptional year, designed to make sure that, despite the pandemic, despite the fact we had to cancel exams… because it wouldn’t have been fair for children, young people, to sit exams when they’ve had such different experiences of Covid – the different levels of self-isolation and so on – so a teacher-assessed system was the best alternative to make sure they can go on to the next phase of their education or careers.”

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