21st January 2019

Comparing GCSE performance in England and Wales – equivalent or not?

New analysis by the Education Policy Institute compares the performance of pupils in England and Wales.

While international comparisons are common in education debates, there is less focus on comparing countries within the UK. This new paper considers how England and Wales differ in performance.

Both countries have reformed GCSEs in recent years. This analysis therefore considers GCSE performance at the last point before these reforms, and combines this with other more recent data, to build a picture of how the countries compare.

You can read the full paper here.

Key findings

Performance by the end of secondary is lower in Wales than in England

  • In 2012-13, before England introduced significant reforms to GCSEs, around 10 per cent fewer children achieved a grade C in English and maths in Wales than in England.
  • Even after England introduced stricter measures to GCSEs in 2014, which reduced its overall performance, it still outperformed Wales.
  • International tests taken by 15 year olds also find that pupils in Wales perform both below the OECD average and below pupils in England in reading and maths. England, on the other hand, scores around the OECD average.
  • As well as having lower overall performance than England, the gap between disadvantaged and non-disadvantaged pupils is also much wider in Wales.  

But children in Wales keep up with those in England until the age of 14

  • At the ages of 3, 5 and 11, Welsh pupils in the Millennium Cohort Study score similarly to their English peers.
  • However, these same pupils achieve lower literacy scores at ages 7 and 14.

What might be driving these trends?

  • There are lots of potential explanations for these differences, which will be explored further in future research
  • Higher levels of poverty in Wales will explain some of the difference, but a wider attainment gap between rich and poor pupils in Wales suggests this is unlikely to be a major explanation.
  • England does have more pupils from minority ethnic groups, who tend to perform better at GCSE level. England has 30 per cent, in contrast to Wales’ 12 per cent.
  • Evidence suggests Wales’ abolition of school league tables reduced GCSE performance relative to England, but some of this might have come through greater incentives in England to use vocational qualifications to boost league table positions.

England and Wales’ GCSEs are becoming increasingly distinct

  • Following reforms to qualifications and assessments, new, divergent GCSEs in both countries make it more difficult to draw comparisons over time, creating challenges for UK universities and employers when comparing the grades of English and Welsh pupils.
  • Regulators should continue to ensure that institutions and employers are aware of the latest changes, so that pupils in both countries are afforded equal consideration. Without clear communication of the recent changes, some students may face discrimination.