Exams

Thousands more kids leaving school without GCSE grades ‘new norm’

Analysis shows 3.3 per cent of pupils received no grade in English in 2023, compared with 1.7 per cent in 2019

Analysis shows 3.3 per cent of pupils received no grade in English in 2023, compared with 1.7 per cent in 2019

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The proportion of pupils leaving school without a GCSE grade in English has nearly doubled since before the pandemic, prompting concerns about the “new normal” of teenagers left behind.

Analysis by SchoolDash reveals that 3.3 per cent of pupils received no grade in English in 2023, compared with 1.7 per cent in 2019.

There is a similar, though less extreme, picture in maths, rising from 2.5 per cent pre-pandemic to 3.3 this year.

It follows a two-year plan by regulator Ofqual to return to “normal” after teacher grades were awarded during the Covid years.

Timo Hannay
Timo Hannay

But Timo Hannay, the founder of SchoolDash, said it was not “quite true” that GCSE grades returned to normal this year.

“These are relatively small proportions of the total cohort, but still represent thousands of children.”

SchoolDash’s data included looking at the number of pupils not entered into an exam, those who were entered but did not complete the test, and those who sat the test but were awarded a U”.

The proportion of pupils with a “U” in English was 1.4 per cent this year, up from 0.9 per cent in 2019. Likewise, no entries rose from 0.3 per cent to 0.7 per cent and those getting no result rose to 1.1 per cent from 0.5 per cent.

‘It’s the students without entries that is the issue’

Duncan Baldwin, the professional community leader for the Confederation of School Trusts, said it was tempting to think that things had returned to normal because pass rates based on entries were largely in line with 2019.

“Schools’ experiences with their students last year tell a different story, resulting in higher proportions of pupils without grades in English and maths.

“It’s the students without entries that is the issue, some of whom struggled with attendance and mental health, and risks being missed in top-level messaging.”

Some schools fare worse than others. The proportion of pupils with no English grade in ‘inadequate’ schools rose from 3.9 per cent in 2019, to 6.7 per cent. This is compared to a 0.7 percentage point rise for ‘outstanding’ schools.

The number of pupils with no grades in schools with the highest deprivation levels rose from 3.4 per cent to 5.8 per cent in English this year, compared with a one percentage point rise in low deprivation schools.

Free schools were schools in which numbers decreased, from 3.4 per cent to 3.1 per cent.

The number of grades that were 4 and above this year was 70.3 per cent in England, marginally above the 69.9 per cent pass rate in 2019.

Schools Week analysis suggests that 38,000 more pupils will now have to continue studying English compared with last year.

This is a 28.6 per cent rise – above the 3.3 per cent rise in entries for both subjects. Nearly 22,000 students will have to continue maths compared to 2022 – a 14.9 per cent rise.

Unclear if progress 8 impacted

It’s hard to tell if Progress 8 measures have been impacted by the rise in no grades.

The DfE introduced a mechanism to adjust the scores of pupils with very low Attainment 8 scores – deemed “outliers” – to stop any disproportionate impact on a school’s overall Progress 8.

This could include youngsters absent because of health issues, a bereavement or taking prolonged absence for something such as pregnancy.

Baldwin said leaders knew how much work, care and resource pupils who fell into this category took, and how often the problems associated with them were beyond what schools could address.

Hannay added that the increase in pupils with no grades could impact on the way schools were  assessed, “potentially penalising them for post-pandemic trends, such as absence and illness, that are beyond their control”.

There was a slight increase in pupils having their score “capped” in 2023, up to 0.97 per cent from 0.95 per cent in 2019.

Dr Jo Saxton, the chief regulator of Ofqual, previously said this year’s results “hold up a mirror”, adding: “Some of the things that they show are uncomfortable – absolutely – but it’s a picture that needs to be seen.”

The Department for Education has been approached for comment.

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