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GCSE results expose unfairness to disadvantaged pupils

By Mark Richards,

24 Jan 2020

Coinciding with the week that this year’s GCSE results were published, the results of a new investigation commissioned by Teach First have also been released. The study was an exploration of the difference in GCSE results attained by pupils who attend schools in England’s poorest communities and the country’s richest areas. Unsurprisingly, the findings expose stark differences in attainment and show how the new GCSEs are unfair towards pupils coming from disadvantaged backgrounds. The differences in core subject attainment The focus of exam result performance often appears to concentrate on the core subjects of Maths and English, and the differences in attainment between pupils living in the poorest postcodes and those from the richest are particularly pronounced.

38% of pupils from the most disadvantaged areas fail to achieve the top grades (‘4’ and above) in Maths.

This compares with the 20% who fail to do so in more affluent regions. It’s a similar picture in English Language.

Just 11% of those from the poorest backgrounds achieve the top three grades.

Indeed, it has to be said that similar trends appear to be emerging across many subjects.

For the ‘achieving the top three grades metric’, the figures make poor reading: Maths (13%), French (15%), and Geography (12%). EBacc subjects show biggest differences in attainment The worrying figures also show how the EBacc has impacted on differences between the results achieved by pupils living in rich and poor postcodes.

In every subject within the EBacc, it is clear that those from the poorest areas are far more likely to fail to get a Level 4 or above.

This, remember, is what the DfE (Department for Education) defines as a ‘Standard Pass’.

In Geography, 27% of the richest pupils miss the Level 4 and above target.

In poorer areas, the figure is 50%.

In History, 46% of the poorest pupils fail to gain a standard pass, compared to 27% of the richest.

Meanwhile, only 16% of pupils from the most disadvantaged backgrounds achieve the top three grades in the subject.

By contrast, almost double this figure (31%) of those from richer areas do. What do the figures tell us The figures from this report seem to back up the concerns from teachers and schools about the impact of the new GCSEs, the government’s emphasis on the EBacc, and the narrowing of the curriculum has had on lower ability students and especially those from poorer backgrounds. There has been a general sense that the curriculum and the focus on more academic subjects effectively discriminates against those from disadvantaged backgrounds.

The results from the Teach First investigation appear to give weight to this way of thinking. Of course, the seriousness of these findings should not be underestimated.

Not only is the system obviously unfair to those pupils who are living in the poorest regions and most challenging circumstances, the inequality will hold children back long into adulthood. This is inequality that will prevent young people from reaching their full potential in school.

This, in turn, greatly reduces their chances of gaining high quality apprenticeships or places at top universities, and the best-paid jobs in the future.


1 Are GCSEs no longer fit for purpose?

2- Ofqual issues warning about higher tier GCSE grade boundaries

3- New 9-1 GCSE grading system

4- Are the new GCSE grades making it difficult for teachers to predict a student's likely results?

5- Should BTECs be saved to preserve choice?