GCSE results day 2021: top grades awarded reach record high - but Labour say poorer pupils ‘abandoned’

Teachers were responsible for awarding grades this year, as the Covid pandemic resulted in exams being cancelled for a second year - but Labour said that poorer pupils were ‘abandoned by the government’

The percentage of GCSEs awarded at top grade has reached an all-time high, following another year of scrapped exams.

Due to Covid-19, teachers have been responsible for assessing and awarding students’ grades, with pupils only being assessed on what coursework they had been taught.

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

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer said inequality is “baked in” to the exams system after the gulf in top GCSE grades between private and state academies widened.

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer joins pupils receiving their GCSE results at Dorcon Academy in Swindon, Wiltshire

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


Ofqual figures show that 61.2% of GCSE entries from private schools in England achieved a grade 7 or above this year, compared to 28.1% of state academies – which the majority of secondary school pupils attend, a gap of 33.1 percentage points.

Last year, 57.2% of GCSE entries from independent schools secured the top grades, compared to 25.9% of entries from academies, a gap of 31.3 percentage points.

Girls take the lead

Girls have been awarded a greater proportion of top grades, overtaking their male counterparts for a second year. The number of girls achieving one of the top three grades has risen from eight percentage points in 2020 to nine percentage points this year.

In 2019, when exams were last held, only a fifth (20.8%) of entries achieved at least a seven – the equivalent of an A grade. The highest awarded grade is a nine.


Girls have been awarded a greater proportion of top grades, overtaking their male counterparts for a second year (NationalWorld)

According to figures from Ofqual, the number of 16-year-old students in England who entered seven or more GCSEs and received a nine 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.

Over 77 percent, UK entries were awarded at least a four – broadly the equivalent of a C, up by 0.8 percentage points on last year when 76.3 percent achieved the grades.

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

An analysis by Ofqual found that 61.2 percent of GCSE entries from private schools in England were awarded a grade 7 or above this year, compared with 57.2 percnet in 2020 and over 45 percent 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% of entries at academies achieved at least a grade 7 this year, a 2.2 percentage point increase from last year, when 25.9% of entries were awarded top grades.

Traditional A*-G grades have been scrapped 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.

No algorithm this year

Last year, pupils in less advantaged areas were marked down by an algorithm which disproportionately awarded privately funded schools and schools in more affluent areas with higher grades.

Following 2020’s grading fiasco, 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.

‘Fair and accurate reflection’

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.”

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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