The GCSE results from the second set of post-pandemic summer exams are due to be published later this week.

Here are five themes to look out for:

  1. Do not focus too much on the overall drop in grades

In September 2022, Ofqual confirmed its intentions to return to the 2019 grade distribution in 2023, albeit with a “soft landing”. That means we expect results to be lower this year than last year, and we know roughly how much lower.

That’s by Ofqual’s design, not some failure in standards. There was never a perfect way to unwind the grade inflation experienced when exams were cancelled during the pandemic. The approach Ofqual has chosen to take is a reasonable and pragmatic one.

It is worth emphasising that the drop in grades is expected to be smaller than the fall in A-level grades we saw last week. We do though expect a slightly larger drop than last year, as we didn’t quite make it “half-way back” to the 2019 grade distribution, as intended. Grades will fall by a third of a grade on average across all GCSE entries.


  1. The impacts of the pandemic on learning may be persisting

Whilst we know roughly what the grade distribution is going to look like, this does not tell us anything about how standards have held up.

16-year-olds who sat their GCSE exams this summer have not had a normal school experience, with extensive periods of national lockdown whilst they were in years 8 and 9. Concerns that this has resulted in learning loss for this cohort of students is widespread.

On Thursday, we also expect Ofqual to publish the results of the National Reference Test (NRT) in English and mathematics. The NRTs are sat by a representative sample of year 11 students and provide a consistent measure of standards over time, for GCSE aged pupils.

This will give us further insight into how standards have changed over time. Results last year showed that since the start of the pandemic there had been falls in mathematics, but outcomes in English remained similar with earlier results.


  1. Grades in some subjects are set to fall more than others

We will also see how results have varied across different subjects. Grade increases over the pandemic years were not equal across subjects, and so some will require bigger drops to return to something like the 2019 distribution.

We expect particularly large falls in subjects such as computing, music, and PE, where the fraction of candidates receiving top grades (7 and above) in 2022 was still 10 percentage points above the levels seen in 2019.


  1. Gaps between London and the rest of the country may widen

Data released later this week will also show us results by region. Pupils in London will again almost certainly outperform pupils elsewhere. Last year a third of grades awarded to pupils in London were at grade 7 or above, whereas in the north-west and Yorkshire and the Humber it was under a quarter.

Level 3 results released last week showed the attainment gap between the north and the south has widened since 2019. Our analysis of results for younger pupils has found that the pandemic’s effects were felt more acutely in parts of the north and midlands than in London. This means the gap in GCSE results between London and elsewhere in the country may be set to increase further this year.


  1. We will not know what has happened to the disadvantage gap or other vulnerable groups

We will not know on Thursday how results have varied by different pupil groups. Data on pupil characteristics will not be released until later in the year. We should though be particularly worried about what might have happened to the disadvantage gap.

Prior to the pandemic progress in closing the disadvantage gap had already stalled. Pupils from low-income backgrounds were typically around 18 months behind their peers when they sat their GCSEs. Data from the Department for Education shows that in 2022, the disadvantage gap had grown to its widest in a decade.