Inequality is “baked in” to the exams system, Sir Keir Starmer has said after the gulf in top GCSE grades between private and state academies widened.
The proportion of GCSE UK entries awarded the top grades – at least a 7 or an A grade – has surged to a record high (28.9%) this year after results were determined by teachers amid cancelled exams due to the pandemic.
Independent schools in England saw the largest absolute increase in the top grades compared with other types of schools and colleges – up four percentage points on last year.
Ofqual figures show that 61.2% of GCSE entries from private schools in England achieved a grade 7 or above this year, compared to 28.1% of state academies – which the majority of secondary school pupils attend, a gap of 33.1 percentage points.
Last year, 57.2% of GCSE entries from independent schools secured the top grades, compared to 25.9% of entries from academies, a gap of 31.3 percentage points.
Reacting to the results, the Labour leader said Education Secretary Gavin Williamson and the Government had scored a “U” on tackling inequality
Sir Keir told broadcasters: “What I want to see is a first-class education for every child, whoever they are and wherever they come from.
“What we have seen today is baked in inequality – the gap between those going to private schools and going to state schools has got bigger, rather than smaller.
“For Gavin Williamson and the Government, on the issue of tackling inequality, they just got a U, and I just think that’s completely unacceptable.”
Ofqual also found that pupils in England eligible for free school meals (FSM) have fallen further behind their more privileged peers at GCSE since 2019.
Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), suggested that private school pupils may have been “less affected” by the pandemic than those at state schools.
He told the PA news agency: “They are more likely to come from wealthy homes where digital technology will have been readily available and they are generally taught in smaller groups because independent schools are much better funded than state schools.
“This does emphasise the need for a much more substantial education recovery package for the state sector than ministers have so far provided.”
But skills minister Gillian Keegan said private schools had performed better because they are selective.
Ms Keegan told BBC Radio 4’s World At One programme: “One of the things we did see this year is that actually all students did improve overall – that’s great news, and there was stability in the results at all levels, so we’re delighted for all the students.
“But you do see some differences in those private schools because they are selective schools.”
The analysis from Ofqual also found that 68.4% of GCSE entries from grammar schools in England were awarded a grade 7 or above this year, compared with 26.1% in secondary comprehensives.
Overall, the number of 16-year-olds in England taking at least seven GCSEs achieving a clean sweep of straight 9s – the highest grade under the numerical grading system – in all subjects rose by more than a third in a year.
Some 3,606 students in England achieved a clean sweep this summer, compared with 2,645 in 2020.
Traditional A*-G grades have been scrapped in England and replaced with a 9-1 system amid reforms, with 9 the highest.
Girls also extended their lead over boys in the top GCSE grades.
The proportion of UK female entries awarded 7/A or above was 33.4%, nine percentage points higher than male entries (24.4%).
This year, teachers in England submitted their decisions on pupils’ grades after drawing on a range of evidence, including mock exams, coursework and in-class assessments using questions by exam boards.
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 checks.
Less than 1% of all the GCSE and A-level grades in England were changed in the process, Ofqual said.
As the results were published, schools minister Nick Gibb defended Mr Williamson saying he was “very effective” following calls for the Education Secretary to be sacked.
Sir Keir has said Boris Johnson should fire the Education Secretary amid reports the Prime Minister is considering replacing him with equalities minister Kemi Badenoch at the next reshuffle.
Mr Gibb told Sky News: “I’ve worked with Gavin Williamson for the last two years and he is driven to make sure that no student will suffer long-term damage to their prospects as a consequence of the pandemic.”
A Department for Education (DfE) spokeswoman said: “There has been an increase in top grades for students from all backgrounds, and the relative increase of the proportion of 7s and above on last year is no higher in independent schools than it is in secondary comprehensives.
“We are committed to supporting students from all backgrounds. Ofqual report that the assessment approach this year is likely to have helped prevent previous gaps from widening as much as they would have done without this year’s grading process.”