Michael Gove's tougher GCSEs 'harm social mobility'

Sutton Trust analysis finds the attainment gap for disadvantaged pupils has widened since reformed GCSEs were introduced

social mobility ladder

Reformed GCSEs have widened the attainment gap between disadvantaged pupils and their peers, and may have harmed social mobility in the future, research has concluded.

The Sutton Trust charity analysed GCSE scores during a period of reform to England's exams system – which began in 2015 under then education secretary Michael Gove.

It found that when new GCSEs were introduced, graded from 9 to 1 rather than A* to G, scores for disadvantaged pupils fell by just over a quarter of a grade across nine subjects.


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Cohorts first sat the new GCSEs, which were designed to be more rigorous and challenging, in 2017 and 2018. The qualifications represented a movement away from modular assessment and coursework and towards a linear system based on final exams.

The new grades at 8 or 9, replacing the old A*, were intended to differentiate performance at the top end. But the Sutton Trust has found that disadvantaged pupils have been hit harder by the reforms when it comes to attaining the highest grades.

The report finds that whereas in the legacy qualifications, 2 per cent of disadvantaged pupils attained the top grade of an A*, just 1 per cent of poorer pupils achieve the top grade 9 in the new qualifications.

The drop is smaller for non-disadvantaged pupils, falling from 8 per cent achieving A* to 5 per cent achieving a 9.

The report suggests that the attainment gap may have opened up at the top grades because disadvantaged pupils were more likely to be at the lower end of the A* bracket. And with further differentiation at the top grades through the introduction of grades 8 and 9, the gap at a grade 9 is likely to be wider than that for an A*.

Furthermore, it says that as the new exams are more rigorous, affluent families have the capacity to spend money on resources to help their children if they struggle with harder content, which could also explain the growing gap. 

The charity warned that this might have consequences for social mobility in the future.

“Greater differentiation at the top end of the ability scale may have negative social mobility impacts, for instance, where employers or universities focus on those achieving top marks,” the report says.

And it adds that the overall widening of the attainment gap could disadvantage poorer pupils further: “Given the gatekeeper role of GCSEs, this attainment gap has consequences for pupils’ subsequent careers by reducing chances for good jobs and higher and further education.

“The overall result is clear: we find a statistically well-determined effect, small but going in the direction of further disadvantaging the disadvantaged.”

James Turner, Sutton Trust chief executive, said: “While the motivation behind the 2015 reforms was to drive up standards, there were concerns that the changes could come at the expense of the poorest pupils.

“Our research tells us that the changes have likely had a small impact on the attainment gap, with disadvantaged pupils losing out by about a quarter of a grade across 9 subjects. It will be important that the government monitors carefully the long-term impact that the reforms may have.”

Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said: “The fact that the attainment gap between disadvantaged pupils and their classmates has widened since the introduction of new, tougher GCSEs is a terrible indictment of these reforms.

“The government was obsessed with the idea of providing harder GCSEs and a new grading system that stretches and differentiates between the most able students.

"But the issue that we really need to address is how to better serve students who face the greatest level of challenge. The new GCSE system does the exact opposite by making their lives even more difficult.”

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