The number of pupils in England scoring a clean sweep of the highest grade in their GCSEs this summer has increased by more than a third in a year, with more girls achieving straight top grades than boys.
Overall the proportion of GCSE entries awarded the top grades has surged to a record high after exams were cancelled due to Covid-19.
Hundreds of thousands of youngsters received results determined by their teachers, and nearly three in 10 (28.9%) of UK GCSE entries were awarded the top grades – at least a 7 or an A grade – this year, up from 26.2% last summer, according to data from the Joint Council for Qualifications (JCQ).
In 2019, when exams were last held before the pandemic, only a fifth (20.8%) of entries received a 7/A grade or above.
But separate figures, published by exams regulator Ofqual, showed the number of 16-year-olds in England taking at least seven GCSEs achieving a clean sweep of straight 9s – the highest grade available under the numerical grading system – in all subjects has risen by 36% in a year.
Some 3,606 students in England achieved a clean sweep this summer, compared with 2,645 in 2020.
Only 837 16-year-olds scored a clean sweep of straight 9s in 2019, but a small number of GCSE language subjects had not yet moved over to the reformed numbered grading system in England this year.
Of the youngsters who achieved a clean sweep, 64% were girls and 36% were boys, according to Ofqual’s analysis.
Overall girls have extended their lead over boys in the top grades.
The proportion of female entries awarded 7/A or above was 33.4%, nine percentage points higher than male entries (24.4%).
Last year, girls led boys by eight percentage points (30.2% girls, 22.2% boys).
Addressing the widening gender gap at GCSE, Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), told the PA news agency: “It does seem to be the case that girls tend to fare better under a more holistic form of assessment – as has happened this year – whereas some boys have a tendency to cram at the last minute for exams.
“It is a stereotype which obviously does not hold true for all girls and all boys but certainly enough to make a difference to overall outcomes.”
Independent schools in England saw the biggest absolute increase in the highest grades compared with other types of schools and colleges – up four percentage points on last year.
An analysis from Ofqual found that 61.2% of GCSE entries from private schools in England were awarded a grade 7 or above this year, compared with 28.1% of entries from academies awarded a grade 7 or higher.
The regulator also found that pupils in England eligible for free school meals (FSM) have fallen further behind their more privileged peers at GCSE.
An analysis found there has been a slight widening of the “long-standing results gap” between students in receipt of FSM and those who are not, by around one-tenth of a grade compared with 2019 – and Ofqual suggested this could be a reflection of the “uneven impact” of the Covid-19 pandemic.
The Labour party has warned that the GCSE results “present a stark warning that the Conservatives are letting down” the country.
Overall, some 77.1% of UK entries received a 4/C grade or above. This is another record high and is up from 76.3% in 2020, according to JCQ data.
In 2019, just over two in three (67.3%) entries achieved at least a 4 or C grade, figures for England, Wales and Northern Ireland show.
Traditional A*-G grades have been scrapped in England and replaced with a 9-1 system amid reforms, with 9 the highest. A 4 is broadly equivalent to a C grade, and a 7 broadly equivalent to an A.
Last summer, the fiasco around grading led to thousands of A-level students having their results downgraded from school estimates by a controversial algorithm before Ofqual announced a U-turn.
The proportion of GCSE entries awarded top grades rose to a record high last year after grades were allowed to be based on teachers’ assessments, if they were higher than the moderated grades given, following the U-turn.
This year, teachers in England submitted their decisions on pupils’ A-level and GCSE grades after drawing on a range of evidence, including mock exams, coursework and in-class assessments using questions by exam boards.
On Tuesday, the proportion of A-level entries awarded top grades reached a record high after exams were cancelled, with 44.8% achieving an A or above.
No algorithm was used this year to moderate grades.
Instead, schools and colleges were asked to provide samples of student work to exam boards, as well as evidence used to determine the grades for the students selected, as part of quality assurance (QA) checks.
Work from A-level and GCSE students from 1,101 centres in England, around one in five schools and colleges, was scrutinised by exam boards.
For 85% of the schools and colleges whose students’ work was scrutinised as part of QA checks, the regulator said the subject experts were satisfied that the evidence supported the teacher-assessed grades that were submitted.
For the remaining 15%, professional discussions took place between teachers and curriculum leads in schools and colleges with external subject experts and, where necessary, centres reviewed and revised their grades.
Less than 1% of all the GCSE and A-level grades were changed in the process.
Shadow education secretary Kate Green said: “Children on free school meals have been abandoned by this government and students in state schools are again being outstripped by their more advantaged private school peers.
“These widening attainment gaps are testament to the Conservatives’ failed approach to education.”
On GCSE results day, schools minister Nick Gibb said the system of teacher assessment will not be used in the long term amid calls to scrap GCSE exams.
Asked on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme whether the Government is ruling out using teacher-assessments for GCSEs in the long run, Mr Gibb replied: “Yes. We did have controlled assessment, teacher assessment in GCSEs prior to 2010 and they took up a vast amount of teaching time that should be better spent on teaching young people.”
The schools minister said he wanted to get back to a pre-pandemic grading system in the “longer term” in a bid to tackle grade inflation.
He told Sky News: “We want to get back to that system in the longer run but we have to make sure that when we do that, that we are fair between different years, different cohorts – the ones who took their exams in 2020 and 2021, and the students who take their exams in the future.”
Education Secretary Gavin Williamson said: “Young people have worked hard despite the challenges of the last year and they should feel incredibly proud of their achievements today.”