Private schools over-inflated the GCSE grades of their pupils following the cancellation of exams in 2020 and 2021, new analysis suggests.
Results of centre-assessed grades in 2020 and teacher-assessed grades in 2021 showed at the time that private school pupils enjoyed among the largest boosts in their fortunes.
Analysis by FFT Education Datalab found the proportion of GCSE entries by private school pupils graded 7 or above increased from 46.6 per cent in 2019 to 61.2 per cent in 2021, a rise of 14.6 percentage points.
In non-selective mainstream schools, the increase over the same period was just 7.5 percentage points.
The performance of private school pupils in the two years without formal exams has been a point of contention, with elite institutions accused of manipulating the system to inflate their pupils’ grades.
Ofqual found in 2020 there was “no evidence” that the system for awarding GCSEs and A-levels that year had systematically disadvantaged poorer pupils.
But Schools Week revealed last year that no private school pupils sat the national reference test, meaning the results would not show why the sector saw the biggest jump in grades.
Private school grades ‘more generous’ than expected
Today, Datalab said its latest analysis “does seem to suggest that during the pandemic, under both centre-assessed grades and teacher-assessed grades, independent schools gave out more generous grades than might be expected”.
Julie Robinson, chief executive of the Independent Schools Council, said “every school was required to take the same approach to assessment and there were external quality assurance processes to ensure the accuracy of grades”.
“No one wanted the exam disruption we saw in the past two years and no one working in schools wanted to have to implement the emergency assessment systems Ofqual was forced to introduce, but they had no choice.”
She said teachers and leaders deserved “credit for their hard work and professionalism and most importantly, every young person taking exams in 2020 and 2021 deserves to have confidence they have been awarded fair and accurate grades”.
The charity created a model which predicted pupils’ grades in GCSE maths and English based on prior attainment and gender for each year from 2017 to 2021.
It then compared estimated grades for private schools and selective state schools, and compared the actual grades achieved to them.
In 2017, pupils in both private and grammar schools achieved around 0.4 of a grade higher than Datalab’s estimate in English and around 0.3 of a grade higher in maths.
Private school gap ‘opened up’ in pandemic
The data shows “very little difference” between private and grammar schools before 2020, but “something changes” once pandemic-era grades are factored in.
Although pupils in both types of school continued to achieve grades higher than estimates, a “gap opened up between the two”.
Private school pupils exceeded their estimated grades by more than they did before the pandemic, while those in grammar schools exceeded them by less than pre-pandemic in English and roughly the same in maths.
Report author Natasha Plaister said the analysis “does seem to suggest that during the pandemic, under both centre-assessed grades and teacher-assessed grades, independent schools gave out more generous grades than might be expected”.
But she added that researchers were “still not clear on why that might be”. One theory is private school pupils faced less disruption during Covid, but the teacher assessed grade system “at least attempted to correct for that to some extent”.
“We’ll be watching with interest when this year’s results come out to see if the gap that opened up between independent and state schools during the pandemic begins to close when we return to an exam-based system of assessment.”