Fears of North-South divide after A-level grade dip

A North-South regional divide has emerged in A-level results, as the first exam results since the outbreak of the Covid pandemic also showed a dip in top grades.

In a blow to Downing Street’s levelling up agenda, analysis has revealed a sharper decrease in A* and A grades handed out in the North East of England compared with the South East.

A social mobility charity said the government needed to do more to address disparities, while Labour’s shadow education secretary Bridget Phillipson said: “Students in the North East are no less capable, but after 12 years of Conservative governments they’re seeing their results go backwards compared to their peers across the South of England.”

Hundreds of thousands of pupils tore open their results envelopes on Thursday, after schools made a return to exams following two years of teacher-assessed grades during the pandemic.

Overall results showed A-level entries receiving A* and A in England, Wales and Northern Ireland were down 8.4 percentage points compared with last year, following a move to curb grade inflation – but the numbers were still higher than in 2019, before the pandemic.

Girls continued to outperform boys overall, with the proportion of A* to E grades standing at 98.7 per cent for girls compared with 98.1 per cent for boys – but the lead enjoyed by girls in the top grades has narrowed.

The divide between the state and private sectors in England was also brought into sharp focus, with 58 per cent of candidates at independent schools and city training colleges awarded A and above in all subjects, compared with 30.7 per cent at secondary comprehensive and middle schools. Pre-pandemic, in 2019, the figures were 44.7 per cent and 20.5 per cent.

University admissions also fell by 2 per cent compared with last year, but still represent the second highest on record. Figures from Ucas (the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service) showed that 425,830 students had had places confirmed. The number of students from the most disadvantaged backgrounds to gain places on courses is 46,850 this year, up by 3,770 from 2019.

Analysis by Labour, based on Ofqual figures, showed that top grades dropped further in the North East of England compared with the South East over the past year. Figures showed that in the North East, the proportion of grades at A and A* fell from 39.2 per cent in 2021 to 30.8 per cent in 2022, compared with a fall from 47.1 per cent to 39.5 per cent in the South East.

“Students receiving their results have worked incredibly hard through unprecedented circumstances, but these inequalities reveal the Conservatives’ continued failure to enable all young people to thrive post-pandemic,” said Ms Phillipson.

The Sutton Trust also highlighted that the biggest gains since 2019 in grades at A or above were seen in London, where they were 12 percentage points higher, at 39 per cent. In comparison, the figure in the North East of England was 30.8 per cent, up less than 8 percentage points.

Sir Peter Lampl, founder and chair of the Sutton Trust and chair of the Education Endowment Foundation, said: “It’s great to see that many disadvantaged youngsters are gaining a place at university, and that there is a slight narrowing of the gap between the most and least advantaged.

“Universities have rightly prioritised widening participation in spite of an extremely competitive year. However, the gap is still wider than it was pre-pandemic, highlighting that there is more work to be done.

“This data also shows that there are regional disparities in attainment. The government must work to ensure that students from all backgrounds, in all areas of the country, have the opportunity to succeed.”

The Joint Council for Qualifications (JCQ) said the overall pass rate, representing the proportion of entries graded A* to E, fell by 1.1 percentage points, from 99.5 per cent in 2021 to 98.4 per cent this year. It was up by 0.8 points since 2019, when it stood at 97.6 per cent.

Entries receiving the top grades of A* and A were down 8.4 points, from 44.8 per cent last year to 36.4 per cent – but up 11 percentage points from 25.4 per cent in 2019. The figure for the highest grade, A*, was down year-on-year from 19.1 per cent to 14.6 per cent, still remaining higher than in 2019, when it stood at 7.7 per cent.

The proportion of entries graded A* to C dropped from 88.5 per cent in 2021 to 82.6 per cent this year – but it was up from 75.9 per cent in 2019.

Sam Tuckett, senior researcher for post-16 education and skills at the Education Policy Institute, said: “The 2022 cohort of students should be proud of overcoming the substantial disruption they have faced, with many not having sat a formal exam ahead of this summer.

“Given Ofqual’s strategy to return to pre-pandemic styles of exams and grading, it’s no surprise that this year’s results sit between the lofty results students gained in 2021 and the last exam-based assessments of 2019.”

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