How did we get here?
Don’t forget, today’s results come after several years of disruption to summer exams and various modifications to grading practices.
In 2020 and 2021, no GCSE examinations took place, and they were instead replaced by centre and teacher assessed grades. This resulted in a noticeable shift in grades between 2019 and 2021. The proportion of entries being awarded a grade 4 or above increased from around 70 per cent to 79 per cent.
In September 2021, Ofqual confirmed they would pursue a policy of returning to the 2019 distribution over multiple years. Grades in 2022 were intended to be at a midpoint of those in 2019 and 2021. Whilst the distribution of grades shifted, they did not quite move all the way back to the intended midpoint, 75.3 per cent of entries were awarded a grade 4 or above.
Subsequently in September 2022, Ofqual confirmed its intentions to return to the 2019 grade distribution in 2023, albeit with a “soft landing”. This means that we expect results to be lower this year than last year, and we know roughly how much lower.
We expect to be able to start providing analysis from 9:30am this morning. Follow along as we take a closer look at the national picture, as well as variation in GCSE results by gender, subject, region and school type.
Headline results are lower than last year, but by design
As expected, GCSE results this year are significantly lower than last year, and the distribution is similar to that in 2019.
Overall, amongst 16-year-olds in England 70.3 per cent of all awards were at grade 4 or above, this is 5.0 percentage points lower than in 2022. At the higher end of the distribution, 22.4 per cent of all awards were at grade 7 or above, this is 4.6 percentage points lower than in 2022.
Figure 1: GCSE grades – cumulative percentages since 2019
There are though some small differences between the distribution of results this year and that in 2019. The percentage of higher grades is still slightly above 2019 levels, the percentage of entries at grade 7 and above is 0.6 percentage points higher than in 2019 and the percentage of entries at grade 4 and above is 0.4 percentage points higher. However, the percentage of entries receiving any pass has fallen slightly.
Figure 2: Percentage point differences in grades compared to 2019
Overall, the average grade awarded to 16-year-olds in England this year was 4.78. This is a fall of about a third of a grade compared with 2022 but very similar to the average grade awarded in 2019.
Figure 3: Average GCSE grades between 2019 and 2023
Grades in most subjects are back to 2019, but inevitably some subjects have seen larger falls to get there
Every subject saw increases in the percentage of entries awarded a grade 4 or above between 2019 and 2021, but these increases were not uniform. They were generally lowest in subjects with already high attainment, such as the individual sciences where pupils tend to have high prior attainment and the vast majority would be expected to achieve grade 4 or above. Even after this grade inflation had started to be unwound last year, the percentage of pupils awarded grade 7 or above was still over 10 percentage points higher in some subjects, such as computing, music, economics and physical education.
Today’s data shows that those subjects that had experienced the largest increases have now experienced the largest falls. Almost all subjects are now back to their 2019 grade distributions. Grades in statistics and classical studies are actually slightly below 2019 levels. Whereas the per cent of top grades (7 and above) in subjects that saw large increases over the pandemic are still above 2019. There have been noticeable increases in German and French but this is due to an upwards adjustment in these subjects to bring standards in line with other languages.
Figure 4: GCSE grades by subject in 2019 and 2023
Figure 5: Percentage point change in GCSE grades by subject since 2019
Girls continue to outperform boys, but the gap has narrowed since 2019
In 2023, 73.7 per cent of entries from girls achieved a grade 4 or above in comparison with 66.9 per cent of entries from boys. This gap between boys and girls has been narrowing since 2019, with both the percentage of boys increasing and the percentage for girls decreasing. The gap is now 2 percentage points lower than it was in 2019.
Similarly, the gap between boys and girls has narrowed amongst the highest attaining, when compared with 2019. This year, 25.3 per cent of entries from girls and 19.5 per cent of entries from boys were awarded a grade 7 or above. This represents a gap of 5.8 percentage points, 0.7 percentage points down on the 2019 gap. This gap has though been higher in the intervening years.
Figure 6: GCSE entries between girls and boys since 2019
Girls continue to outperform boys in the vast majority of subjects. In 2023, the only subjects where boys consistently outperformed girls at both grade 4 and grade 7 are maths, physics, economics and statistics. As we observe across all entries, gender gaps have generally narrowed in most subjects, though gaps have widened in engineering and computing.
More falls in maths standards
Given today’s GSCE results look very similar to those in 2019 by design, they do not tell us anything about standards. A better way to track performance over time is to look at the results from the National Reference Test (NRT) in English and mathematics taken by a representative sample of year 11 pupils. The last pre-pandemic NRTs took place in February/March 2020 just before schools closed due to the pandemic.
Results released today by Ofqual, suggests that outcomes in English have actually held up despite the disruption of the pandemic with no statistically significant change in outcomes since 2020. However, there has been a statistically significant decline in mathematics performance at both grade 4 and above, and grade 7 and above. It is difficult to draw direct comparisons with assessments earlier for younger pupils, but our own analysis of learning loss during the pandemic suggested bigger losses in mathematics than in reading.
Figure 7: NRT grades since 2020
Regional disparities persist, with some indication of differential effects due to the pandemic
There are long standing disparities in the attainment of pupils in different parts of the country. While regional differences are relatively small compared to, for example, the difference between the highest and lowest performing schools, it was still the case that pupils in the south east and in particular London outperformed pupils elsewhere.
Today’s results show that regional disparities continue. The percentage of entries awarded a grade 7 or above in London was 28.4%, whilst only 17.6% of entries in the north east were awarded a grade 7 or above. In the majority of regions, results today are similar to those in 2019 but the gap between London other regions has widened. London has seen a 2 percentage point increase in the per cent of awards awarded a grade 4 and above, and a 2.7 percentage point increase in the per cent of awards awarded a grade 7 and above since 2019.
This widening of the gap between London and the rest of the country is consistent with analysis of learning loss during the pandemic (which has tended to focus on younger pupils) has also suggested greater learning losses for pupils in the north and in parts of the midlands.
Figure 8: GCSE grades by region in 2019 and 2023
Regional comparisons mask more localised changes in grades since 2019
Ofqual have also released breakdowns of grades by ceremonial county. Top results are again clustered in London and the south east. Over 30 per cent of entries were awarded a grade 7 and above in Surrey and Buckinghamshire, the largest fraction of any counties.
We have also calculated an odds ratio of results in 2023 versus results in 2019 for each region – in essence, how much more likely is it that an entry is awarded a grade 7 in 2023 than in 2019. This shows there have been more localised changes in grades since 2019.
In Greater Manchester the odds of an entry being graded at 7 and above have increased around 7.5 per cent, despite the overall percentage of entries awarded top grades in the north west remaining the same as in 2019. Similarly, the odds of entries being awarded top grades in Durham, and Tyne and Wear are up 10 per cent since 2019, despite the north west being the region with the lowest fraction of top grades.
Whilst the percent of top grades has gone up in the south west overall, in Wiltshire, 20.3 per cent of entries were awarded a 7 and above, down from 23.2 in 2019, meaning the odds of securing a top grade in Wiltshire are 0.84 of what they were in 2019.
Figure 9: GCSE outcomes by ceremonial county
Figure 10: GCSE outcomes as odds ratios, 2019 and 2023
GCSE grades by school type have return to 2019
In 2023, over 90% of entries made by pupils attending independent and selective schools were graded at 4 and above, and more than twice as many entries were graded at 7 and above compared to other school types.
In 2020 and 2021, the use of teacher and centre assessed grades saw entries graded 7 or above in independent and selective schools sit 10 percentage points above 2019 levels in 2021. In 2023 though we have seen a return to levels similar to those seen in 2019.
Figure 11: Percentage point change in the number of GCSE entries graded 7 and above