Exam results 2021 and predictions for 2022 by Professor Barnaby Lenon

The most remarkable fact about this summer’s GCSE results was the dominance of girls. 33% of girls gained a grade 7 or better compared to only 24% of boys, a widening of the gap since 2020. If one looks at subjects which require more coursework, the gap was huge. In Design Technology (traditionally thought of as a boys’ subject) 45% of girls gained a grade 7 or better compared to only 24% of boys. In Art, 38% of girls were awarded a grade 7 or better compared to 16% of boys. This confirms what teachers know: that girls are far better at working systematically right through a course while boys tend to rely on last-minute revision. Because the Teacher Assessed Grades were not always based on a formal exam, boys suffered somewhat.

In terms of the gap between independent schools (61% grade 7 or better at GCSE) and state schools (pupils at state Academies gained 28% grade 7 or better) we know that independent schools were quick to deliver high quality, live lessons online and their pupils were more likely to have computers at home. There is surely an urgent need to ensure that all secondary-age pupils have internet access at home and their own device so they can access online resources or lessons. The pandemic has reinforced the fact that in a rich country internet access is a basic requirement for children over the age of 11.

The system of exam grade awarding was far from perfect this year, but the fact that all young people achieved grades which enable them to go on to the next stage of their lives was a significant achievement.

Looking to the future, for those in Year 13, who did not sit GCSEs in 2020, summer 2022 will be their first experience of public exams. It will probably be important to set them two sets of internal school exams which have the status of mocks so they get practice.

We know that summer 2022 GCSEs and A-levels will have ‘adaptations’ to compensate for learning loss – but notification of which topics will be examined will probably not come until after Christmas.

For those embarking on A-levels in Year 12 there is the problem that they received flattering GCSE grades and this may mean that, despite good GCSEs, some struggle with A-level subjects like maths, economics or modern languages. Schools will need to make quick decisions about whether to recommend pupils change course, as happens every year. Many schools are planning to have tests in October, the results of which can guide these decisions. One of the most helpful things a school can do is ensure that sixth formers take the right subjects.

What about exam grading in 2022? I dare say we shall see inflated grades once again. It would obviously be unfair to revert suddenly to the grade distributions we had in 2019. At some point A-level grades may change from A*-E to 1-6, enabling a recalibration.

We must pray for an uninterrupted school year, but at the same time insist that the Department for Education comes up with contingency plans in case schools do in fact have to close for a period. The fact that there was no contingency plan ready in January 2021 was perhaps the worst of many shockers last year.

Professor Barnaby Lenon

Dean of Education, University of Buckingham

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