To all those in England, Wales and Northern Ireland celebrating achievements in the 2021 GCSEs, BTEC Firsts and other Level 2 Vocational Qualifications, Voice Community sends its warmest congratulations. We also congratulate all those parents and carers, teachers, school leaders and support staff who have played such a significant role throughout.
Your achievement in the face of such unparalleled disruption should not go unrecognised.
There has been a rise in entries this year of 0.9% to 5.75 million entries just slightly less than the increase of the 16-year-old population across the UK. In Northern Ireland entries rose by 2.6%, again due to the increase in pupil numbers. 91.3% of GCSE entries came from 16-year-olds, which increased by 2.2% with entries by 17-year-olds and over declining by 11.8% following an increase in
2020 of 5.9%. The average number of entries per student was 7.69 in 2021, the same as last year.
Notable subject entries include a rise of 4.7% in Spanish and a 4.2% in Geography mirroring the rise in entries we saw earlier in the week with the A Level. And whilst figures for French remain stable, German continues its decline with almost 10% fewer entries this year. And in Wales, entries for Welsh (1st) Language rose by 9% to 5904.
English and English Literature together account for 24.3% of all entries with Maths a further 14.1%. In Northern Ireland STEM subjects now account for 42% of all GCSE entries. And together with 15.6% of all entries being in Double Science the number of candidates achieving the EBacc measure continues to rise with only Art and Design and Business Studies being non-EBacc subjects in the top ten of entries.
Last year we commented that the results were unique, but for the class of 2021 circumstances have continued to conspire against them with last minute changes to courses, content being curtailed, and exams being cancelled once again making their achievement even more remarkable.
Whilst it is impossible to know what students would have achieved if there had been the opportunity for them to complete their full course content and sit the exams as normal, we must not denigrate the results received today. Media speculation and talk of “grade inflation” is unhelpful and undermines the genuine achievement of months of hard work by students and school staff alike.
As with A levels, there has been a particular effort by teachers and schools to ensure that after last year’s ‘algorithm’ debacle, the grades awarded are an accurate and fair representation of student achievement. Indeed, Simon Lebus, interim chairman of the exams watchdog, Ofqual, said students had been “fairly treated” and the grades, based on teachers’ judgements were this year “likely to give a much more accurate and substantial reflection of what their students are capable of achieving.”
However, these grades are very different to those that might have been achieved in an exam since they take account of a range of sources of evidence produced over the whole course and are not reliant on student performance ‘on the day.’ The current ‘reformed’ GCSEs are designed to be more challenging, with harder and broader content, assessed purely through terminal examinations.
In our recent report The Future of Education one member described today’s education system as “an outdated Victorian based education system” characterised by “obsession with exams, obsession with academic excellence and defunding of SEN support, defunding of the arts and dehumanisation of the children” and this is echoed by former Education Secretary, Kenneth Baker who said: “I think that they’ve [GCSEs] run their course now.
Voice Community has long believed that grades based on work produced during the course and awarded to them by the people who know them best, their teachers, is a consistent and reliable method of assessing students. And we have proposed reforms which could include modernising the curriculum, reconsidering the role of GCSE exams and the all-pervasive accountability systems.
This provides a compelling argument for a return to more modular courses which, while providing opportunity for students to ‘bank’ progress as they go, would also safeguard the awarding system.
Voice is particularly welcoming of the decision to issue students the Centre Assessed Grades awarded to them by the people who know them best, their teachers. We appreciate the extraordinary efforts that teachers and school staff have gone to, to prepare, assess and gather evidence for this which permits most young people to look forward to a future full of opportunity.
With all the disruption over the past 18 months, it is not surprising to see that across the UK there has been a drop by 0.6% in the overall pass rate with 99% of students achieving a G/1 grade or above. At the other end of the scale outcomes are up slightly with 28.9% achieving A/7, a 2.7% increase over 2020, and C/4 up 0.8% to 77.
In English the number achieving A/7 and above have risen by 3.4% to 26%, this is mirrored in Wales and Northern Ireland who have also seen significant increases with those achieving grade c/4 and above at 86.1% in NI, 71.3% in Wales and 73.9% for the whole of the UK. Mathematics shows a similar picture with those achieving A/7 and above rising by 1.9% to 21% across the whole of the UK, to 21.6% in Wales and 30.5% in Northern Ireland. Figures also rose for those achieving grade 4/CX and above to 69.4% a 2.8% increase over 2020.
Dual Award Science saw increases of 1.9% at A/7 and 0.4% at C/4 and although Biology, Physics and Chemistry also saw healthy increases at grade A/7, this was not repeated for grades C/4 where they saw slight declines of 0.4%, 0.9% and 1.3% respectively.
Achievement in Welsh (1st) Language remains stable at grades C and above but has increased by 3.4% for those receiving the highest grades to 34%. And in other languages, results are up across the board with German seeing increases of 4% for those achieving A/7 and over up to 38.6%, French up 2.9% to 33.8% and Spanish up 2% to 35.1%.
Inequalities have slightly worsened with the gap between Free School Meals (FSM) and Non-FSM broadening by one tenth of a grade. Overall, although there were similar increases at top grades for boys and girls the gender gap has increased by 1%, and girls continue to perform better than boys. The gap closes somewhat at grade 4/C declining from 7.9% in 2020 to 7.0% in 2021.
Although there has been some increase in the pass rate these are not meteoric rises that some feared. These grades demonstrate that there is a reliability and constancy when teachers are empowered to use their professional judgement which should be commended and recognised for future exam series and not reserved for national emergencies.
The news has been full of stories throughout the year, highlighting concerns around course content and grade inflation. However, today, these stories must not be permitted to detract from the undisputable achievements of so many students who have laboured so hard under unimaginable circumstances.
Today is a day to rejoice and celebrate the hard work and dedication of the students and those who surround them. Congratulations from Voice Community!