Sharp regional differences across England in GCSE school exam results published on Thursday pointed to a failure of efforts to improve social mobility and enhance the prospects of those from disadvantaged communities.
The share of students receiving the top grades 7-9 (the past equivalent of A-A*) was as low as 16.4 per cent in the north east, down from 16.7 per cent in 2018. Elsewhere, the share of the top marks was as high as 25.7 per cent in London, up from 25.2 per cent last year. The average across England, Wales and Northern Ireland was 20.8 per cent.
The proportion of students achieving grades higher than 4 (a C pass under the old system) in the north east was down 0.7 percentage points to 63.8 per cent in 2019, in line with results in the East and West Midlands but significantly below London, where the share was 70.6 per cent.
Jon Andrews, deputy head of research at the Education Policy Institute think-tank, said: “Some of the biggest gaps are in areas of the country where we know improvements are needed, which is a worrying sign.”
He stressed that detailed data on GCSE performance linked to the social backgrounds of students would not be available until later this year, but on efforts to improve social mobility, added: “Based on recent trends, it looks like progress has stalled and might even be going into reverse.”
Russell Hobby, chief executive of education charity Teach First, said: “Disadvantage is connected to the lack of local job opportunities, which is particularly acute in the north east. There is will and talent in the education system but it’s really hard to persuade families and students to invest in qualifications if they can’t see the jobs at the end of it.
“We need to make sure funding and teachers are being directed to where they are most needed.”
Across England, Wales and Northern Ireland overall, exam entries and results were marginally higher, as schools adjusted to recent government policies to focus on more academic subjects, make testing more challenging and adopt a new system of grading. The overhaul is due to be completed in 2020.
Alex Scharaschkin, of the AQA exam board, said: “These results show a very stable outcome with some slight improvement as demonstrated by attainment.” He stressed that the grades were adjusted to make them comparable with previous years, pointing to an overall increase in academic standards.
The total number of entries across all GCSE subjects rose 1.4 per cent over 2018 to more than 5.5m this year, reflecting a 1.5 per cent increase in the total number of 16-year-olds, the age at which most of the exams are taken.
Figures from Ofqual, the government department that regulates exams, showed 837 students achieved the highest grade 9 score in seven or more subjects.
The share of top grades in English language fell 0.1 percentage points to 14 per cent and rose 0.2 percentage points to 62 per cent for the share equal or above grade 4. In maths, the share attaining grade 7 and above rose 0.3 percentage points to 16.1 per cent, and the proportion receiving grade 4 and above was up 0.2 percentage points to 59.6 per cent.
Praising the shift to the EBacc group of more academic subjects, Gavin Williamson, the education secretary, said the results showed “pupils are going on to further study and the world of work with the best possible foundations, focusing on the academic cornerstones of education while also stretching themselves creatively”.
But Nansi Ellis, assistant general secretary of the National Education Union, expressed concern that the new grading system for GCSEs, which removed coursework in favour of final exams, added to mental health pressures on students.
She said the “narrowing” curriculum focused on EBacc subjects at the expense of music, design and technology and some other arts subjects in decline this year “force[s] schools to focus on core academic subjects regardless of the interests of students.”
Modern foreign language entries rose by 3 per cent to 308,000, with French still the most widely taken with 3.2 per cent more entries at 131,000. Spanish entries rose fastest, up 7.5 per cent to 102,000, while German fell 3.9 per cent to just below 43,000. In French, 24.3 per cent achieved grades 7-9, unchanged from 2018, and in Spanish 27.7 per cent, down 0.4 percentage points.
Simon Swain, a vice-president at the British Academy, the national academy for the humanities and social sciences, said: “The small increase in entries in modern languages GCSE for England is a positive sign that the long-term decline may be starting to change. Still only around half of school pupils in England are taking a qualification in a language other than English at this stage, compared to three quarters in 2002.”
Boris Johnson, the prime minister, said: “My government will do all we can to increase funding for education, and to give schools the powers they need to deal with bad behaviour and bullying, so pupils continue to learn effectively.”
Pupils in Scotland, where education has been devolved, take different exams.
Mounting pressure and sleepless nights
Louisa Pyrah endured a sleepless night before collecting her GCSE results from Brighouse High School on Thursday morning. She need not have worried, passing all nine with ease. She had attended extra revision classes for the past two years and put in long hours in the evening.
“It was harder than I expected but I was confident. The teachers were so supportive. I am so happy,” she said as she confirmed she would be going to college to study A levels.
Dylan Metcalf, 16, narrowly passed all his nine subjects as for once boys’ results at the West Yorkshire school matched those of girls. “I got here because of hard work and everyone who has got my back and tried to motivate me,” he said. He is now aiming for university.
Brighouse is a typical comprehensive in a typical West Yorkshire town of 11,000. Once an engineering and textile centre, it still has some factories, though business services is now the biggest employer, thanks to its position on the M62 motorway.
Depravation is not high, but it is rising after 10 years of austerity. The median household income was £30,346 in 2017, slightly above the UK average. The 1,437 students at the school are overwhelmingly white indigenous British, and results mirrored the national picture. Some 71 per cent passed English and maths, up from 69 per cent the year before. But those getting top grades fell to 43 per cent from 49 per cent.
Richard Horsfield, incoming headteacher, said the move away from continuous assessment to make everything dependent on final exams had damaged some pupils’ chances. “Some of them had 29 exams. There were nine exams in maths. There has never been a time when students have had to deal with nine maths exams.”
The proportion of the most deprived pupils passing English and maths GCSEs increased from 34 per cent last year to 53 per cent. He said there was a “cohort effect” with some years simply working harder than others or having fewer social pressures.
Liz Cresswell, the outgoing head, said: “The most difficult group to move forward is white working class boys. It is an issue everywhere. A lot of it is about literacy, independence and maturity.”
She said the revised GCSEs had discriminated against them further. “Everyone talks about cultural capital. The new syllabus magnifies that gap. History relies a lot on general knowledge and if you have not been taken to museums and historic sites it is much harder.”
She put the north/south divide down to the budget cuts and the difficulty of recruiting teachers.
The school’s annual budget has dropped from £8m in 2013 to £6.5m last year and it has cut 48 staff, almost a quarter, while pupil numbers stayed the same.
“A lot of schools around here cannot find maths teachers. Everyone wants to be in London, don’t they? We are lucky that we have qualified maths teachers but most work part time.”
The school can only offer German every other year because it could not find qualified staff.
Ella Birkbeck, 16, who took Italian instead, said there was now too much emphasis on exams. “There is so much pressure. Some people are better than others at exams. It is so unfair. It has all been leading up to these numbers since I was five. I have come out with incredible results but I know there are people who have been working just as hard as me and haven’t got the results.” Andy Bounds