GCSE grades 2020: What the data really tells us

Last week's GCSE data wasn't good news – it shows how the exams debacle affected colleges, says Ben Gadsby, from Impetus

Ben Gadsby

GCSE results 2020: Last week's GCSE data reveals a very mixed picture, says Ben Gadsby

Last week was a big week for news. With just a month until Christmas, we got the gift of the government spending review: chancellor Rishi Sunak has set out spending plans mostly for one year because of the pandemic, but further education was one of the areas to get some slightly longer-term news, with £1.5 billion over six years to bring the college estate up to a good standard. Of course, if you’re sat in a room with a leak, you may well be hoping that you don’t have to wait five years for a share of the funds.

Just as important as what was in the spending review was what was not – there was no announcement about decisions on the Augar review of post-18 education. Perhaps it was always optimistic of me to expect news on that this week, but the government was promising to “respond… alongside the spending review” as recently as three weeks ago. Make no mistake, when it comes, it promises to be big news, all linked to the White Paper promised initially “this year” (but now rumoured to be delayed further).


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The spending review also allocated £400 million for “schools catch-up” in 2021-22. It has subsequently been announced by the Department for Education that part of this will be for another year of the National Tutoring Programme. This year over £90 million has been put aside for GCSE catch-up provision in post-16 settings, and hopefully some of next year’s money will be ringfenced for the same issue. As I said in April, these qualifications are crucial for young people, and charities like Get Further are showing that, with right support, young people can succeed.

This point was further reinforced last week by the release of statistics about this summer’s qualifications. At Impetus, our focus is on young people from disadvantaged backgrounds, and what’s striking, looking at the data, is how much of a mixed bag the figures are.

GCSE chaos for colleges

The excellent David Robinson, of the Education Policy Institute, pointed out the differences between A levels, where the attainment gap for young people from disadvantaged backgrounds has narrowed slightly, and applied general qualifications, like BTECs, where it has grown instead.

This mixed picture extends to GCSEs as well – although with more of a tilt towards being bad news. Colleges have already had to resolve the issue of the higher pass rates, and the changes it caused in enrolment rates and course choices. But, of course, these passes were not evenly distributed. While the attainment gap between rich and poor based on grades 9-4 in English and maths has shrunk slightly, it’s grown in terms of things like overall GCSE attainment.

But what’s really interesting is how this varies regionally. In London and the South West, students from disadvantaged backgrounds closed the gap on their better-off peers more than twice as fast as in England as a whole. Meanwhile, in the North East, they actually fell slightly further behind – despite no one sitting any exams – all because of the crazy, last-minute approach taken this summer. In some local authorities, the gap has shrunk by over nine percentage points, in others it’s grown by five percentage points.

All this underlines the fact that the impact of the exams debacle on college intakes hasn’t been uniform across the country. As always, colleges have done a great job accommodating whatever has been thrown their way – an extra 20,000 students, according to the Association of Colleges – but we really need government to make sure that we don’t repeat this chaos next year.

Only a few more weeks now until Christmas. Let’s hope that we get the FE White Paper sooner rather than later, and not in the middle of my Christmas dinner, because otherwise I, for one, will be having a mulled whine…

Ben Gadsby is head of policy and research at social mobility charity Impetus

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