With A-level and GCSE results now published, we’ve learned how much England’s education system relies on exam results, and how many of society’s inequalities have been made more extreme.
It’s long been known that independent schools and grammar schools account for an outsize proportion of the top grades, but the switch from formal exams to teacher assessments made necessary by the pandemic this year and last has highlighted the gap dramatically.
和 70% 的 A-levels at independent schools awarded A or A*, 和 68% of GCSEs at grammar schools grades 7 以上, the attainment gap with non-selective state schools widened even when others also saw their grades improve.
Comprehensive schools doubled their proportion of top A-level grades this year compared with 2019, but they fell further behind in absolute terms because they began so far at the back of the field.
Similarly for students receiving free school meals, the proportion gaining top GCSE grades doubled between 2019 和 2021, while those not on free school meals rose less quickly. The gap between the two groups, 然而, still climbed by 50% from eight to 12 percentage points.
The rising tide of As and 9s lifted some pupils higher than others, in a living example of what social scientists call the Matthew effect, the rewards of accumulated advantage.
The Labour leader, Kier Starmer, recognised this when he said: “We had huge inequality before we went into this pandemic. It’s just got worse, and a lot of that is just down to the way that the education secretary and the government handled this with a chaotic system.”
Ministers and many policymakers argue that national exams are the fairest way to award grades, but that fairness also springs from the restrictionsplaced on grade distribution in a normal year. 作为 Ofqual found to its cost in 2020, attempting to maintain an artificial distribution using an algorithm can make things worse.
Reflecting on the distribution of GCSE grades this year, Ofqual said: “It seems likely that many of these changes reflect the uneven impact of the pandemic and that the changes to the assessment arrangements may have lessened the unevenness in outcomes we may otherwise have seen.”
换句话说, a less generous system would have hurt the disadvantaged or non-selective state schooled even more.
Jon Andrews, the head of analysis at the Education Policy Institute, 说: “It’s important that we don’t let [these] grade changes distract us from the huge learning losses that students have faced. There is a risk that higher grades awarded to young people conceal the underlying losses that they have experienced from the pandemic.”
But why were year 11 teachers more restrained in their GCSE assessments than their counterparts in year 13 for A-levels, often within the same school?
Partly that is because GCSE are taken by pupils across a wider spectrum of abilities, with most of the national cohort involved. A-levels are more often taken by those aiming for university, so the potential reward of an undergraduate place is more pressing for students and teachers.
For year 11 teachers there was less pressure. The government ditched league tables for this year and last, removing a school accountability measure that can cost headteachers their jobs.
GCSEs are still a gateway to sixth forms and colleges, 然而, and they are valued by employers. That makes planning for next year’s exams just as vital. Alissa Dhaliwal, the CBI’s head of skills, 说: “Ensuring young people from all backgrounds can fulfil their potential in education is crucial to securing a more inclusive economy. We can’t allow the pandemic to worsen existing inequalities.”