The attention over these last couple of weeks has been on students receiving their exam results, and rightly so. We should be proud of the way our students have coped: those whose A levels were their first high stakes external exams; those who took the still very new T levels; our year 11s, with only one full year of secondary school before the disruption of lockdowns.
We should be proud of our profession too, our resilience and adaptability during the pandemic and beyond. Now we need the resources to continue to provide an outstanding education for all our students.
While grades may be ‘back to normal’ in England, and heading that way in Wales and Northern Ireland, the education system, and children’s lives, are not. The pandemic may have retreated, but its continuing effects are compounded by an economic crisis that is pushing more families into poverty. Absence rates are high, along with teacher vacancies, while physical and mental health continue to worsen. Pupils may be increasingly disillusioned and disengaged. School staff have had to be the champions of children and young people when few others are.
But it will take more than hard working school staff to make the difference for these young people. Widening poverty gaps, and the lack of good jobs, or poor transport infrastructures contribute to the widening attainment gap.
The growing gaps in exam results between the North and South of England suggest that the pandemic might have exacerbated existing inequalities. Schools in areas hardest hit will be wondering what more they can do to close those gaps. Of course we want the government to provide additional support and funding in those areas that need it most, but we also need a plan that considers all the factors that impact on the lives of children, young people and their families.
Some comparisons within this year’s results may be helpful, comparisons between this year and 2019 are not. While grade boundaries may have been set so that individuals who would have achieved a level 4 at GCSE in 2019 have achieved a level 4 in 2023, with some ‘generosity’ because of the disruptions faced by this year’s cohort, there are still too many students whose individual difficulties mean that they are nowhere near achieving that level.
There will be many schools where levels of absences, teacher vacancies, lack of mental health support, have increased the challenges of getting pupils over the line.
In individual schools, even comparisons within this year’s results need to be treated with caution: different subjects have performed very differently, with grades in music and drama at A level falling more sharply than maths and chemistry for example.
Continuing gaps between outcomes for girls and boys might suggest we should reconsider our pedagogy. Or it may be that we need to look more closely at the examination system itself. An evidence-led system needs to evaluate the data and look for possible causes.
Next year, GCSE students will have experienced disruption in both year 7 and 8, just at the time when they should have been settling in and trying out different subjects. In 2025, it will be the turn of those who missed out on a proper ending to primary school and a good transition to secondary school. Of course, it’s right that the profession works to mitigate these disadvantages.
But we need the government to step up and provide adequate support.
Schools cannot solve this crisis alone, and we need to make sure school leaders are not held accountable for issues outside their control. But while an Ofsted spokesperson says they will use results data as ‘the starting point for discussions about pupil outcomes’, the profession is increasingly disbelieving of these promises.
Teachers, leaders and support staff have worked hard to help these students to achieve what they have, and will continue to support them in their next steps.
As a profession, we are continually stepping up and speaking out for our students. Now, more than ever, we need a plan from government that recognises the continuing problems we face, that is based firmly on evidence, and that puts children and young people at its heart.