The proportion of top GCSE grades awarded in England, Wales and Northern Ireland dipped slightly this year but remained well above pre-pandemic levels, as schools and colleges returned to a system of formal examinations after two years of disruption.
More than 26 per cent of GCSEs — national exams taken by 16-year-olds — were at a 7 or above this year, equivalent to an A-A* in the old system, according to results released on Thursday by the Joint Council for Qualifications.
Last year the proportion hit a record 28.9 per cent when exams were replaced with teacher assessments; before the pandemic in 2019 it was just 20.8 per cent.
The government plans to gradually return to a normal system of grading, with marks set at a midpoint between pre-pandemic levels and the record highs of last year.
The results highlighted the gap between the performance of children from different economic backgrounds and UK regions.
Attainment improved in all regions compared with 2019, according to analysis by English exam regulator Ofqual. But the proportion of top grades achieved in London was about 10 percentage points higher than in the north.
Jon Andrews, head of analysis at the Education Policy Institute think-tank, said: “The government must do more to combat geographic inequalities.”
Shane Richardson, headteacher of Co-op Academy Stoke-on-Trent, said pupils there had faced “mass uncertainty” with local Covid-19 infection rates three times the national average at certain points during the pandemic.
“The real message is about what the kids did and the profound resilience that they demonstrated,” he said.
At Shrewsbury High School, an independent girls’ school in the Midlands, pupil Harriet Underhill said it “felt like a relief” to achieve a clutch of level 8 grades after an uncertain two years.
“We still did lessons all the way through so we didn’t really miss out on anything, . . . [but] I’ve got friends who didn’t do online learning at all,” she said.
There was also a gender disparity with 30 per cent of entries by females at 7 or above, compared with 22.6 per cent of males.
Jo Saxton, chief regulator of Ofqual, said students strongly supported the return of exams as a chance to “prove themselves” in a “tried and tested way”.
To compensate for the educational disruption caused by the pandemic, students were given special support this year in the form of fewer assessment topics and additional exam materials.
More than 73 per cent of grades were a 4 and above, equivalent to a C or more in the old system, compared with 67 per cent in 2019 and 77 per cent last year.
Meanwhile, thousands of students were at risk of not receiving their Btec vocational qualifications on Thursday; exam board Pearson said about 7,000 pupils had been affected. The admission came after thousands of higher-level Btec results were delayed last week.
Grammar and private schools achieved the highest grades overall. The proportion of grades 7 and above achieved at private institutions in England fell more sharply than at other types of schools, from 61 per cent last year to 53 per cent.
At comprehensive state schools, the proportion of grades 7 and above dropped from 26 per cent to 23 per cent.