Recent changes to GCSEs – including tougher exams and a new grading system – have led to a slight widening of the attainment gap between disadvantaged pupils and their classmates, according to new research published by the Sutton Trust today.

Making the Grade, by Professor Simon Burgess from the University of Bristol and Dave Thomson of FFT Education Datalab, finds that during the period of the reforms, test scores for disadvantaged pupils fell slightly compared to their classmates, by just over a quarter of a grade across nine subjects.

Reforms to GCSEs were introduced by Michael Gove in 2015, with the first cohorts taking the new exams in 2017 and 2018 across a range of subjects. The major changes were a move from modules to a focus on final exams, and a change in the grading system from letters (A*, A, B etc), to numbers (9, 8, 7 etc). The aims of the reforms were to improve standards overall by making courses harder and increase differentiation at the top of the grade range.

Today’s report analyses GCSE data before and after the reforms were implemented in 2017, to assess what impact the changes have had. It finds that although the reforms have not had a significant impact on the attainment gap, greater differentiation at the top end of the attainment scale may have negative social mobility impacts, for instance where employers or universities focus on those achieving top marks.

Under the previous system, 2% of disadvantaged pupils achieved the top grade of A*, whereas just 1% now achieve a 9. The drop is less for non-disadvantaged pupils, falling from 8% achieving A* to 5% achieving a 9.

To make sure that disadvantaged pupils do not lose out, the Department for Education should continue to monitor the impact of greater grade differentiation on the attainment gap.

James Turner, CEO of the Sutton Trust, said:

“While the motivation behind the 2015 reforms was to drive up standards, there were concerns that the changes could come at the expense of the poorest pupils.

“Our research tells us that the changes have likely had a small impact on the attainment gap, with disadvantaged pupils losing out by about a quarter of a grade across 9 subjects. It will be important that the government monitors carefully the long-term impact that the reforms may have.”


  • The Sutton Trust is committed to improving social mobility from birth to the workplace. Founded by Sir Peter Lampl in 1997, the Trust has supported over 30,000 young people through evidence-led programmes and published over 200 pieces of agenda-setting research, many of which have influenced government policy.
  • Simon Burgess is Professor of Economics at the University of Bristol. His current research interests are in the economics of education, including the importance of teachers, pupils and schools, market structure in education, incentives, and choice. He has also worked on the performance of ethnic minorities in schools and ethnic segregation.
  • Dave Thomson is chief statistician at FFT. He has over fifteen years’ experience working with educational attainment data to raise attainment in local government, higher education and the commercial sector. His current research interests include linking education and workplace datasets to improve estimates of adult attainment and studying the impact of education on employment and benefits outcomes.
  • Making the Grade uses Key Stage 4 data from the National Pupil Database in England, focusing on the years 2016, 2017 and 2018 pre and post GCSE reforms. The study looks at results and entry rates for disadvantaged and non-disadvantaged pupils across these years. Regression analysis is used to estimate the impact of the changes while taking into account a variety of school and pupil characteristics. Disadvantage is defined as eligibility for the Pupil Premium.

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