GCSEs 2022: Back to the Future?

22 August 2022

There will be a record drop in top GCSE grades this year, according to a report from the University of Buckingham’s Centre for Education and Employment Research (CEER).

“Girls have outscored boys since the beginning of GCSEs and they opened the biggest gap ever in 2021, when grades were decided by teachers”, said the report’s author Professor Alan Smithers.

He also said: “The reluctance of young people to study a foreign language has dished the government’ attempt to create a core key stage 4 curriculum of five subjects through the English baccalaureate (Ebacc). It set an ambitious target of 90 per cent of maintained secondary school pupils to be taking it by 2025, but so far it has got no higher than 40 per cent.”

In order to restore the value of GCSE grades, the government has announced that it has asked Ofqual to aim for top grades to be only about a quarter of the total, which is halfway between those of 2021 and 2019. This will mean 230,000 fewer top grades in the UK as a whole this year than last, but 230,000 more top grades than 2019.

There are likely to be about 5.9 million exam entries in 2022, so although a quarter of a million more failing to reach the pass grade seems huge, it is less than five per cent of the total.

In England, which has 91% of the entries, GCSEs are graded 9-1, unlike in Wales and Northern Ireland which retain the letter-grades. There was a 64% increase in Grade 9s in 2021 over 2019. Reducing it by half will mean, in round figures, 76,000 fewer being awarded than last year. About 260,000 more will fall below Grade 4, which is generally taken as the pass level.

In 2021, the gap in top grades between girls and boys had widened to the highest it had been at nine percentage points, with girls ahead in all 47 subject areas, bar two, physics and statistics. They even did better in maths. Girls have come to dominate education, not only at GCSE, but also at A-level and degrees, both in terms of numbers and performance.

Professor Smithers said “Girls have been ahead of boys since the first GCSEs in 1988 and the gap has widened over the years. It got even wider with teacher assessment since teachers seem inclined to look more favourably on girls.

“With the return to objective exams, the gap might be expected to narrow, but evidence is stacking up that during lockdown boys were inclined to escape to their PlayStations, while girls applied themselves more consistently to the work schools set.

“The easier exams with advance notice of question topics is more like remembered course work than demonstrating genuine understanding, so that they reward consistent effort – which is one of girls’ strengths.” says Prof Smithers.

Some subjects received many more top awards through teacher assessment than they did in exams.  Physical education and the performing arts receiving 20% more, while maths, English and double science, received few extra top grades.  With the return to exams we could expect the pattern revert to what it had been, but at A-level in 2022 those subjects which benefitted held on to most of their gains.

The pattern of exam entries was little affected by the emergency measures of the pandemic. According to Ofqual’s provisional entries, the main growth was outside the EBacc in statistics, citizenship and social science subjects. There was some encouragement from the study of ‘other modern languages’ that are mainly taken by native speakers, which has returned to its pre-Brexit level and the continued rise of Spanish, but other than an increase in geography there was little sign that the government would get anywhere near its Ebacc targets.

“In 2022, we can reasonably expect,” said Professor Smithers, “to see a drop in top grades, with many more failing to reach the pass level (C/4).  In England, the biggest percentage fall will be at Grade 9s and many more will fall below Grade 4. Girls will remain a long way ahead of boys with only a small narrowing of the gap from the return to exams,

The changes occurring in GCSE results during the two years’ of teacher assessment were very similar to those at A-level, where the results have already been published. It is likely that the response to the return of exams will be similar too.

“We can take the A-level results as pointers” said Professor Smithers, “at A-level the top grades were cut, but not as far as the government was wanting, I suspect because high marks were scored in the easier exams and lower grades for higher marks is going to be difficult to defend on appeal.

“There was some narrowing of the gender gap, but girls still retained the lead at A* which they had taken with teacher assessment. Girls have been a lot further ahead at GCSE than at A-level, so I would not expect to see a significant impact on GCSEs, especially with the modified exams.

“Apart from Spanish, entries for the languages fell at A-level and provisional entries for GCSEs in England suggest there is no great revival of interest at this level either. I think EBacc is done for and will be quietly phased out. There is already a successor in place, Attainment 8, which allows for a wider range of subjects and does not depend on taking a language.”


Professor Alan Smithers, Centre for Education and Employment Research, University of Buckingham

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Diana Blamires, Press Officer

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