Report Overview

Reforms to GCSEs were introduced in 2015. 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…G etc), to numbers (9, 8…1 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.

This research by Simon Burgess, Professor of Economics at the University of Bristol and Dave Thomson, chief statistician at FFT Education Datalab, examines the impact these reforms have had. The report analyses GCSE data before and after the reforms were implemented to explore the impact on disadvantaged pupils and the attainment gap.


Grades for poorer pupils fell by a quarter of a grade compared to wealthier pupils.


Just 1% of poorer pupils achieve a top grade of 9, compared to 5% of non-disadvantaged.

1.6 times

Wealthier pupils are more likely to achieve grade 5 or above, an increased gap.

Key Findings
  • Pupils are overall entering slightly fewer GCSEs since the reforms, but the gap in entries between disadvantaged students and others has decreased.
  • There has been a slight increase in those achieving grades 9-4 (equivalent to the old A*-C), for both disadvantaged and non-disadvantaged pupils. Though there is little perceptible difference at the top end; those achieving grades 9-7 (A*-A).
  • There has been a small impact on increasing the disadvantage attainment gap. Accounting for a variety of school factors and pupil characteristics, test scores for disadvantaged pupils fell slightly compared to non-disadvantaged pupils, by just over a quarter of a grade across 9 subjects (1.5% of a standard deviation per subject).
  • 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.
  • Similarly, grade 5 is now seen as a ‘strong pass’. Non-disadvantaged pupils were 1.42 times more likely than disadvantaged pupils to achieve a C or above, but are now 1.63 times more likely to achieve a 5 or above.
  • Achieving a ‘standard pass’ in English and maths is crucial to educational progression after age 16, with those who do not reach this level compelled to take resits. There has been a drop of 1 percentage point in the proportion of disadvantaged pupils failing to meet that standard in both English (41.1% in 2016, 40.1% in 2018) and maths (49.8% in 2016, 48.8% in 2018).
  • Triple sciences showed the most appreciable increase in the attainment gap.
  • In sum, substantial increases in the disadvantage attainment gap have not materialised, and this is likely to be in part due to the deliberate maintenance of key grade boundaries.