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.”
NOTES TO EDITORS