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Record north-south gap in top GCSE grades blamed on ‘London-centric policies’ | GCSEs

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The largest gap on record between top GCSE grades awarded to pupils in London and those in north-east England has prompted warnings of a “continuing widening” in the north-south education divide.

School leaders in the north-east accused the government of “London-centric” policies, while Labour said it showed that “levelling up is dead and buried” through the failure to help disadvantaged communities.

More than 28% of entries by pupils in London were awarded grades 7 or higher, equivalent to an A or A*, compared with just under 18% of entries by pupils in the north-east.

The gap in top grades between the two regions widened to more than 10 percentage points, wider than the pre-pandemic gap up to 2019 and the largest since the numerical grading system for GCSEs was introduced in 2014.

Schools North East, which represents more than 1,000 state schools in the region, said the results were evidence of “the disproportionate impact of the pandemic, and the failure of government ‘catch-up’ policies to impact on the most deprived regions”, with the north-east’s challenges being exacerbated by Covid and the cost of living crisis.

Chris Zarraga, the director of Schools North East, said: “It is clear that significant challenges remain, with education recovery policies too London-centric.

“If policy continues to be ‘one-size-fits-all’, we risk a continuing widening of the gap between the north-east and London. Recognition of the perennial contextual challenges, and the impact of the pandemic on more than just those students that had exams cancelled, is long overdue.”

Experts said one reason for the widening attainment gap could be attendance levels. Preliminary Department for Education figures show secondary pupils in London schools had the highest average weekly attendance between September last year and July this year, while those in the north-east, south-west and Yorkshire and the Humber had the highest absence rates.

Overall grades fell across England as regulators enforced a return to the pre-pandemic grading standards of 2019. Top grades were down more than four percentage points on last year, leading to disappointment for many pupils – with 22.4% of entries for 16-year-olds at grade 7 or above.

Among 16-year-olds, the three science subjects, chemistry, biology and physics, had slight falls in pass rates and top grades compared with 2019, as did Spanish.

Nick Gibb, the schools minister, said the results “are a testament to this government’s longstanding work to drive up standards and expanding opportunities for all in our education system”.Jo Saxton, the head of England’s exam regulator, Ofqual, said results were “back to normal” after the disruption of the pandemic and higher grades awarded in 2020 and 2021.

However, Bridget Phillipson, the shadow education secretary, said the gaps “confirmed that Conservative promises to level up education are dead and buried”.

“Young people who have worked so hard are being let down by a government that has no interest in shrinking attainment gaps or raising education standards, and a prime minister who seems to have more interest in supporting American private colleges than schools in this country,” said Phillipson, alluding to Rishi Sunak’s $3m donation to Claremont McKenna college in California.

The number of pupils failing to get passing grades of 4 or above, equivalent to a C, also increased this year, to 30%, similar to the 30.1% figure in 2019 but five percentage points above 2022. Analysis estimates that about 38,000 more 16-year-olds failed to gain at least a 4 in English compared with 2022, while an additional 22,000 failed to gain a 4 in maths.

Becky Francis, the chief executive of the Education Endowment Foundation, an independent charity dedicated to improving social mobility, said the drop in pass rates had “serious implications” for the life chances of many students, who will have to resit English or maths for two more years.

“This means there’ll be more young people required to carry on studying for these qualifications in an already stretched post-16 sector. As things stand, many are unlikely to achieve a pass even through resits,” she said.

“It is likely that those from socioeconomically disadvantaged backgrounds will be most affected, so the attainment gap must be carefully monitored, and support targeted towards pupils in greatest need of it.”

In England, boys did better than previous years compared with girls, narrowing the gap in results between the two. Boys did particularly well in maths, with this year’s results the first year since 2016 in which more boys achieved a grade 4 or above in maths than girls, by 72.6% to 71.9%.

As with A-level results reported last week, England’s regulator imposed more stringent grading than their counterparts in Wales and Northern Ireland.

In England the proportion of top grades was just 0.9 percentage point above 2019 levels, while in Wales they were 3.3 percentage points higher and in Northern Ireland 4 percentage points higher.

Jeremy Miles, the Welsh education minister, said: “We have taken the same approach with GCSEs as A-levels, which is to find the midway point between 2019 and last year. The results are broadly in line with that.

“As with A-levels, the intention is to be back to a pre-pandemic approach by next year.”

Additional reporting by Michael Goodier, Carmen Aguilar García and Steven Morris


The largest gap on record between top GCSE grades awarded to pupils in London and those in north-east England has prompted warnings of a “continuing widening” in the north-south education divide.

School leaders in the north-east accused the government of “London-centric” policies, while Labour said it showed that “levelling up is dead and buried” through the failure to help disadvantaged communities.

More than 28% of entries by pupils in London were awarded grades 7 or higher, equivalent to an A or A*, compared with just under 18% of entries by pupils in the north-east.

The gap in top grades between the two regions widened to more than 10 percentage points, wider than the pre-pandemic gap up to 2019 and the largest since the numerical grading system for GCSEs was introduced in 2014.

Schools North East, which represents more than 1,000 state schools in the region, said the results were evidence of “the disproportionate impact of the pandemic, and the failure of government ‘catch-up’ policies to impact on the most deprived regions”, with the north-east’s challenges being exacerbated by Covid and the cost of living crisis.

Chris Zarraga, the director of Schools North East, said: “It is clear that significant challenges remain, with education recovery policies too London-centric.

“If policy continues to be ‘one-size-fits-all’, we risk a continuing widening of the gap between the north-east and London. Recognition of the perennial contextual challenges, and the impact of the pandemic on more than just those students that had exams cancelled, is long overdue.”

Experts said one reason for the widening attainment gap could be attendance levels. Preliminary Department for Education figures show secondary pupils in London schools had the highest average weekly attendance between September last year and July this year, while those in the north-east, south-west and Yorkshire and the Humber had the highest absence rates.

Overall grades fell across England as regulators enforced a return to the pre-pandemic grading standards of 2019. Top grades were down more than four percentage points on last year, leading to disappointment for many pupils – with 22.4% of entries for 16-year-olds at grade 7 or above.

Among 16-year-olds, the three science subjects, chemistry, biology and physics, had slight falls in pass rates and top grades compared with 2019, as did Spanish.

Nick Gibb, the schools minister, said the results “are a testament to this government’s longstanding work to drive up standards and expanding opportunities for all in our education system”.Jo Saxton, the head of England’s exam regulator, Ofqual, said results were “back to normal” after the disruption of the pandemic and higher grades awarded in 2020 and 2021.

However, Bridget Phillipson, the shadow education secretary, said the gaps “confirmed that Conservative promises to level up education are dead and buried”.

“Young people who have worked so hard are being let down by a government that has no interest in shrinking attainment gaps or raising education standards, and a prime minister who seems to have more interest in supporting American private colleges than schools in this country,” said Phillipson, alluding to Rishi Sunak’s $3m donation to Claremont McKenna college in California.

The number of pupils failing to get passing grades of 4 or above, equivalent to a C, also increased this year, to 30%, similar to the 30.1% figure in 2019 but five percentage points above 2022. Analysis estimates that about 38,000 more 16-year-olds failed to gain at least a 4 in English compared with 2022, while an additional 22,000 failed to gain a 4 in maths.

Becky Francis, the chief executive of the Education Endowment Foundation, an independent charity dedicated to improving social mobility, said the drop in pass rates had “serious implications” for the life chances of many students, who will have to resit English or maths for two more years.

“This means there’ll be more young people required to carry on studying for these qualifications in an already stretched post-16 sector. As things stand, many are unlikely to achieve a pass even through resits,” she said.

“It is likely that those from socioeconomically disadvantaged backgrounds will be most affected, so the attainment gap must be carefully monitored, and support targeted towards pupils in greatest need of it.”

In England, boys did better than previous years compared with girls, narrowing the gap in results between the two. Boys did particularly well in maths, with this year’s results the first year since 2016 in which more boys achieved a grade 4 or above in maths than girls, by 72.6% to 71.9%.

As with A-level results reported last week, England’s regulator imposed more stringent grading than their counterparts in Wales and Northern Ireland.

In England the proportion of top grades was just 0.9 percentage point above 2019 levels, while in Wales they were 3.3 percentage points higher and in Northern Ireland 4 percentage points higher.

Jeremy Miles, the Welsh education minister, said: “We have taken the same approach with GCSEs as A-levels, which is to find the midway point between 2019 and last year. The results are broadly in line with that.

“As with A-levels, the intention is to be back to a pre-pandemic approach by next year.”

Additional reporting by Michael Goodier, Carmen Aguilar García and Steven Morris

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