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9 Things We Learned From This Year’s GCSE Results

Grades are down on last year, as impact of recent reforms starts to filter through...

  • 9 Things We Learned From This Year’s GCSE Results

After last week’s A level excitement, today it was the turn of this year’s GCSE entrants to see how they fared.

This year’s results day is a notable one for several reasons. It marks the last time that entrants’ grades will be measured in letters alone, with a 1-9 numerical scale due to be introduced in 2017.

It’s also the first set of GCSE results that will feed into the government’s newly introduced Attainment 8 and Progress 8 performance measures (a helpful summary of which can be found here), and the first year in which students have had to continue studying maths and English post-16 if they have previously failed to achieve at least a C in either subject.

With that in mind, then, what observations can we take away from this year’s results?

1. Overall grades are down

At first glance, there’s been a marked drop in the percentage of all UK pupils attaining A*-C – 66.9% this year, compared with 69% in 2015, amounting to a decline of 2.1 percentage points.

There are year on year reductions at the top end too, with the overall number of A*s down by 0.1 percentage points to 6.5% and a drop in those landing in the A to A* range of 0.7%, bringing this year’s figure to 20.5%.

2. The age spread of this year’s entrants is markedly different

There were 4,556,099 GCSE entries for 16-year-olds – up by 0.3% compared to last year. The difference was more pronounced among the age ranges immediately and below, however. Entries for 17-year-old entries rose to 381,838 (up 23.2% on 2017, perhaps reflecting the aforementioned post-16 English and maths requirement), while entries for those aged 15 and younger are down 28.5% to 302,859.

The latter drop can likely be attributed to a recent change to performance measures rules in England, which now only factor in pupils’ initial GCSE entries.

3. There may have been a ‘Progress 8 effect’

Speaking of performance measures, it seems the introduction of Progress 8 might have boosted the number of UK entrants for geography (244,033) and history (260,521) – up 7.0% and 5.5% respectively on last year.

However, the proportion of those earning A*-C in geography was down 2.8 percentage points on 2015 and down 3 percentage points in history – which suggests that there’s a a broader spectrum of ability among those taking said subjects.

4. Fewer students are studying modern languages

Echoing the trend seen in this year’s A level results, it’s not good news for modern language teachers. Aside from an uptick in entries for Spanish (up 2.1% on last year to 92,681), there’s been a marked drop in GCSE entrants for French (down 8.1%) and German (down 7%).

Attainment figures have also taken a hit compared with 2015, with A*-C outcomes in French dipping 1.1 percentage points to 69.7% and those for German falling 0.6 percentage points 74%. The higher entry numbers for Spanish might go some way to explain that subject’s starker decline in A*-C outcomes, which are down 2.3 percentage points on last year to 70.9%.

5. The most popular subjects haven’t changed

Given the double weighting of maths and English in the new performance measures and the post-16 requirement to attain C in both, it’s hardly surprising to see that they were sat by 757,296 and 513,285 candidates respectively – more than any other subjects.

English literature, science and additional science fill out the remainder of the top 5. The Joint Council for Qualifications (JCQ) notes that entries for combined science exams are up across all subjects, at the same that students with a higher aptitude for the subject are opting to take separate sciences.

Those making the switch seem to have done less well than previously, however, with percentage points reductions in A*-C grades this year across biology (0.4 percentage points), chemistry (0.9) and physics (1.1).

Otherwise, the rankings of the 10 subjects with the highest number number of entrants remains unchanged from last year – though it’s interesting to see how entry numbers for this year’s top 10 have wax and waned since 2007 in the below JCQ chart. Of particular note is the decline in D&T entrants compared with the growing popularity of RE…

6. Computing entries are way up

Beyond the core subjects, computing seems to be going through a period of explosive growth. 62,454 entrants sat said exam this year, compared with 35,414 in 2015 – a rise of 76.4%. Other subjects seeing a marked increase in entrants include engineering (up 11.7%) and health and social care (up 8.1%).

7. The gender gap widens

Across all subjects, grades for male and female entrants alike were down to varying degrees on 2015’s results. Boys seem to have fared worse, though, with the proportion of those scoring Cs and above down by 2.3 percentage points on last year, while girls saw a decline of 1.8 percentage points.

There’s no missing the gaps in attainment between girls and boys in this year’s exams, however. 62.4% of boys earned Cs or above, compared with 71.3% of girls. At the top end, 16.8% of boys earned As and A*s, compared with 24.1% of girls.

8. GCSE options continue to skew along gender lines

In terms of which subjects boys and girls tended to opt for, health and social care, home economics, performing / expressive arts and ‘social science subjects’ saw the highest proportion of female entrants.

The four subjects with the highest proportion of male entrants were ‘other technology’, construction, engineering and computing.

If it’s gender parity you’re looking for, the four subjects where you’re most likely to find it would seem to be mathematics, additional science, biology and leisure & tourism.

9. Grades were down across all English regions – but some more than others

The three English regions that came out top in terms of A*-C scores were London (70.1%), South East (69.4%) and South West (66.9%).

The bottom three comprised Yorks/Humber (63.5%) East Midlands (63.6%) and West Midlands (64.0%).

However, there were declines in attainment across all regions in England compared with 2015. The biggest drops in those earning A*-C grades were in North West (down 3 percentage points at 65.5%), West Midlands (down 2.9) and Eastern Region (down 2.5% at 66.5%).

Those regions that saw the least amount of decline were South East (down 1.5), Yorks/Humber (down 1.8) and London (down 2.0)

GCSEs 2016 – the response

Nick Gibb – Minister of State for School Standards
“We want to make our country a place where there is no limit on anyone’s ambition or what they can achieve - that’s why we are working to ensure there are even more high-quality schools in every part of the country.

“And I am pleased to see that there are more GCSEs being taken in the core academic subjects, those that give students a wider range of opportunities.And for those 17-year-olds who have struggled to achieve good grades in maths, we are seeing 4,000 more successful retakes of those exams, delivering better prospects for every one of those young people.”

Michael Turner – director general, Joint Council for Qualifications
“There is significant movement in this year’s entries, which impacts on results and creates a very complex national picture. We see shifts not only between subjects, but also across qualifications and year groups. This is driven by several factors, including performance measures and resit policies in England.

“I would like to offer huge congratulations to all students picking up their results today. It is also important to congratulate and thank their teachers, tens of thousands of whom each year use their expertise to mark the millions of examination papers.”

Sir Kevan Collins – chief executive, Education Endowment Foundation
“We warmly congratulate all those students who’ve got the results their efforts merit. But what really leaps out is the high number of young people who have fallen short of the expected standard of five good GCSEs including English and maths. These qualifications are their passport to success in later life. Those from poorer backgrounds are particularly vulnerable to finding themselves unable to access good quality jobs, apprenticeships and further education.

“Only one in four made the grade in English and Maths after sitting the exam a second time. Simply keeping those teenagers in compulsory education for another year is not enough to ensure they leave with the skills they’ll need. We have to generate more and better evidence of which teaching and learning strategies work for 16-18 year olds if we want to make sure re-sitting their exams is worthwhile.”

Malcolm Trobe – Interim General Secretary, Association of School and College Leaders
“What we are seeing is the result of a one-size-fits-all approach to education by the government. Performance measures such as the English Baccalaureate mean all young people must increasingly take more traditional academic subjects and we are concerned that this reduces choice and appears to be depressing grades among 16 year olds.

“We are concerned that some performance measures are inexorably leading to a narrowing of the curriculum with a decline in entries in design and technology and creative subjects. Young people deserve a broad and balanced curriculum with a range of choices. These subjects are also crucial to the economy in terms of our creative and technology industries.”

Chris Keates – general secretary, NASUWT
“With this year’s results including for the first time a number of students resitting English and maths, we must be very cautious of comparing last year’s GCSE results to this year and drawing simplistic conclusions on pass rates. The only way to draw accurate comparisons is once the figures have been broken down further to compare like-for-like cohorts of GCSE students.

“There is a similar risk of comparing different parts of the country, particularly areas of London with other areas of England. London’s success is a result of the former Labour government’s policy to raise standards by building collaborations between schools in the city and ensuring those schools identified as underperforming were given the support they need. This has not been the case for many other parts of the country, including coastal towns. It is therefore clear that collaboration between schools is essential to raising standards, yet the current government’s academies programme is putting barriers against this approach.

Neil Carberry – director for people and skills policy, CBI
“We know that education really matters when it comes to delivering a great future for young people and for the nation as a whole.  Congratulations to everyone getting their results today - your hard work and determination has paid off and will help prepare you for your next step.

“While many young people will choose to move onto A-Levels, university and beyond, there are many options on the table for school leavers, including high-quality technical qualifications and apprenticeships. The government must concentrate more on career outcomes than grades alone. Exam results are only a part of the package that set people on the path to success, alongside the wider range of qualities that employers look for, such as resilience, creativity and a positive attitude.”

Main illustration: It’s celebration time for Clara Sablitzky, Nidaa Abbasi, Jaya Sekhon and Lillie Wildman of Nottingham Girls’ High School

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