On 8 September 2022, the House of Lords is scheduled to debate the following question for short debate:

Baroness Armstrong of Hill Top to ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the GCSE and A-Level results on the widening gap in attainment for children and young people in the north east of England compared to those in the south of England.

1. Educational disadvantage

Research has shown that there are many factors associated with educational inequality and attainment gaps. These factors include economic disadvantage, ethnicity, disability, gender, and whether a child has been in care or has special educational needs and disability (SEND).

It has also been found that there is regional variation in the average size of the disadvantage gap. For example, a recent report on educational inequalities published by the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) found that educational attainment in London outstripped much of the rest of England, with the disadvantage gap in GCSE performance in inner London less than half as wide as that in the rest of the country. However, the study also found that the biggest predictors of educational disadvantage related to people, not places. It argued that a 16-year-old’s family income was more than four times as strong a predictor of GCSE attainment as their local authority of residence.

As a result of school closures during the Covid-19 pandemic, there has been renewed attention on educational inequalities. Various stakeholders, including the Sutton Trust and Education Policy Institute, have raised concerns that the pandemic has led to a widening of the educational attainment gap. It has been highlighted that this attainment gap could have a lifelong impact on young people, with entry into higher education, future employment and lifetime earning all at risk of being affected.

1.1 Government policy

In April 2022, the government was asked in a parliamentary written question about the regional disparities shown in last year’s GCSE results. In response, the then minister for school standards, Robin Walker, said that between 2011 and 2019, the attainment gap had narrowed at both key stages 2 and 4. However, he said that the government was aware that further progress was needed, and highlighted work on the issue, including the schools white paper and the levelling up white paper.

Mr Walker highlighted that in the schools white paper the government had set out a “long-term vision for a school system that helps every child to fulfil their potential by ensuring that they receive the right support, in the right place, at the right time”. He also highlighted two ambitions included in the white paper which are due to be met by 2030:

  • 90% of primary school children will achieve the expected standard in reading, writing and maths, and the percentage of children meeting the expected standard in the worst performing areas will have increased by a third.
  • In secondary schools, the national GCSE average grade in both English language and in maths will increase from 4.5 in 2019 to 5 by 2030.

Stating that the government aims to build capacity where it is needed most, Mr Walker said that the levelling up white paper had identified 55 education investment areas (EIAs). He explained that efforts in these areas would focus on driving school improvement:

This includes building trust capacity, using part of the £86mn the department has committed to investing in trust capacity over the next three years. Additionally, schools in EIAs that have been judged less than Good in two or more successive Ofsted inspections could be moved into strong trusts to help drive up standards.

He also noted that 24 priority EIAs were announced in the schools white paper. He said that there would be more intensive investment and support to address entrenched underperformance in these areas and that places selected as part of this group included Sandwell, Stoke-on-Trent and Walsall. These EIAs would also have access to a share of approximately £40mn to “address specific local needs with bespoke interventions, a multi academy trust CEO development programme and comprehensive support for digital connectivity through connect the classroom”. He said they would also have priority access to other Department for Education programmes, such as bids for new free schools.

In addition, Mr Walker noted that the levelling up premium, “worth up to £3,000 tax-free for eligible teachers working in disadvantaged schools” including in EIAs, would be used to tackle staffing issues.

Since the start of the pandemic, the government has announced various education recovery measures, including additional funding. Further information about the government’s actions is summarised in the House of Commons Library briefing ‘Coronavirus and schools’ (4 March 2022).

2. Results 2022: GCSE and A-level results in England

2.1 Background to the results

This summer saw the return of exams for the first time since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic. Most of the students sitting their exams would have experienced disruption to their education. For example, many A-level students would have had their GCSE exams cancelled and students from both groups would have seen their schools close due to public health restrictions.

To account for this disruption, support was put in place for students that aimed to help them focus their revision and feel less daunted by exams. These adaptations included some changes to coursework to reflect the disruption to learning caused by the pandemic, as well as advance information on what topics would be examined. In addition, there was lenient grading for all subjects which the government said reflected a “staging post between 2021 and 2019 grades”. Further information on the background to school and college assessments in summer 2022 is available in the House of Commons Library briefing ‘Coronavirus: GCSEs, A-levels and equivalents in 2022’ (9 August 2022).

2.2 A-level results

A-level results were announced on 18 August 2022. Outcomes at grade A were 35.9% compared with 25.2% in 2019. Outcomes at grade B were also higher: 62.2% compared with 51.1% in 2019. Although the results were lower than in the previous year, the government said that they should not be compared to 2020 or 2021 because of the different methods of assessment used.

Focusing on regional variation, the government published further data on A-level results. This showed that students in London and the south east received a higher percentage of A and A* grades than those in other regions. Students in the north east of England received the lowest percentage.

Chart 1: A-level grades A and above in 2019 and 2022 by English region

Chart 1: A-level grades A and above in 2019 and 2022 by English region

Table 1: A level grades A and A* from 2019 to 2022 by English region
Region 2019 2020 2021 2022
North East 23.0 35.6 39.2 30.8
East Midlands 21.0 34.5 41.3 31.4
West Midlands 22.0 35.0 40.9 32.3
Yorkhire and the Humber 23.2 35.0 41.1 32.4
North West 23.5 35.8 41.4 34.4
South West 25.8 38.8 44.7 36.0
Eastern Region 25.6 38.3 44.8 36.1
London 26.9 40.7 47.9 39.0
South East 28.3 41.2 47.1 39.5

2.3 GCSE results

GCSEs are graded with a numerical system from 9 to 1, with 9 being the highest grade and 1 the lowest. Students can also receive a ‘U’ which means ungraded. Grades 7–9 are equivalent of A and A* in the previous grading system. Further information about how the numerical grading system compares with the previous A to E scheme is available online.

GCSE results were published on 25 August 2022. Overall, the results were higher than in 2019. Outcomes at grade 7 and above were 26.0% compared with 20.6% in 2019, and outcomes at grade 4 and above were 73.0% compared with 67.0% in 2019. As with A-levels, the government said that the results should not be compared with 2021 and 2020 because of the different methods of assessment used.

Following the same pattern as with A-level results, students in London and the south east received a higher percentage of the top grades (7/A and above) than their counterparts in the rest of the country. The north east of England and Yorkshire and the Humber received the lowest percentage.

Chart 2: GCSE grades 7 and above in 2019 and 2022 by English region

Chart 2 - GCSE grades 7 and above in 2019 and 2022 by English region

Table 2: GCSE grades 7/A and above from 2019 to 2022 by English region
Region 2019 2020 2021 2022
North East 16.4 22.0 24.5 22.4
Yorkshire and the Humber 17.8 22.3 24.4 22.4
East Midlands 18.3 23.0 25.1 22.5
West Midlands 18.1 23.0 25.3 22.8
North West 18.6 23.5 25.9 23.1
South West 20.4 26.1 29.1 25.3
Eastern Region 20.5 25.9 28.5 26.2
South East 23.5 29.0 31.9 29.2
London 25.7 31.4 34.5 32.6

3. Reaction to this year’s results

Dr Jo Saxton, chief regulator at Ofqual, said that students should be proud of their achievements and that they represented a “testament to their hard work and resilience”. Commenting on comparisons with previous years, she said:

It makes sense to compare this year’s results with those of 2019 when exams were last sat. I felt strongly that it would not have been right to go straight back to pre-pandemic grading in one go but accept that we do need to continue to take steps back to normality. These results overall, coming as they do broadly midway between 2021 and 2019, represent a staging post on that journey.

3.1 Regional disparities

Some commentators have highlighted the regional disparities shown in the results. For example, the Guardian reported that a coalition of school leaders, charities and the Northern Powerhouse Partnership had written to Conservative leadership candidates urging them to commit to fixing growing regional disparities in education. They said that the disproportionate effects of the pandemic had worsened existing regional disadvantages and that failures in the implementation of the national tutoring programme, which had aimed to make up for lost learning during the pandemic, had only exacerbated the problem. The letter highlighted that 58.8% of target schools in the north east benefited from the tutoring programme, compared with 96.1% of those in the south east and 100% in the south west.

Commenting further, one signatory of the letter, Chief Executive of the Northern Powerhouse Partnership Henri Murison, argued that despite the government’s levelling up agenda, the Department for Education had “deliberately” levelled down “by abolishing opportunity areas and replacing them with central budgets with no local control and no guaranteed funding”. To address this, Mr Murison said that the incoming chancellor should bypass the education department and spend money directly in local places. He also said that the quality of teaching was not the problem.

Writing for Schools Week, Chris Zarraga, director of Schools North East (a school-led regional network), agreed that a growing north-south divide in educational attainment was not due to a divide in school performance. Instead, he said that “our current measurements of school performance are not fit for purpose”, arguing that “too often economic and geographical factors are mistakenly presented as educational ones”. To address this, he called for education policy to be evidence based and said that the government should avoid ‘one size fits all’ solutions.

Labour also raised concerns about the results. Shadow Secretary of State for Education Bridget Phillipson argued that 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”.

Responding to such concerns, a Department for Education spokesperson said that the government had “set out a range of measures to help level up across England, including targeted support both for individual pupils who fall behind and whole areas of the country where standards are weakest”. They said that this was alongside £5bn “to help young people to recover from the impact of the pandemic, including £1.5bn for tutoring programmes”. They also focused on pupil premium funding, saying that it was increasing to more than £2.6bn in 2022–23, “whilst an additional £1bn is allowing us to extend the recovery premium for the next two academic years”.

4. Read more

Cover image by MChe Lee on Unsplash.