Private schools record biggest rise in top A-level grades in England

Private schools in England recorded the biggest increase in top A-level grades this summer, despite a government U-turn intended to make results fairer, official statistics have shown.

Following the cancellation of exams due to the Covid pandemic, there was outcry when standardised grades given to A-level students on results day left pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds hit hardest.

Private schools, meanwhile, increased the proportion of students achieving the top grades of A* and A twice as much as pupils at comprehensives, official data showed at the time.

Days later the government, alarmed by growing discontent, decided to abandon the algorithm used by the exams regulator Ofqual to standardise A-level and GCSE grades, in favour of school-based assessments, also known as centre-assessed grades, or Cags.

The switch resulted in a hike in results across the board at both A-level and GCSE, compared with previous years. However, government analysis published on Thursday showed that while all school types gained from the move to school-assessed grades, private schools gained the most – with A*s up 11 percentage points on the previous year.

By comparison, state schools recorded an increase of six percentage points, while there was a four percentage point increase among students at further education and sixth-form colleges.

A total of 60.9% of grades issued to pupils in independent schools were an A* or an A, up 16.6 percentage points on last year’s figure of 44.3%. In state schools the proportion of top grades increased by 12.7 percentage points, up from 23% in 2019 to 35.7% this year, and the average point score per A-level entry was 39.51, up from 33.77 last year.

The data revealed female students fared better than their male counterparts, with more women awarded either A or A* in 2020. While all students were more likely to get top grades, increases were larger for women, reversing a small gender gap in achievement seen previously.

New research by Ofqual concluded there was no evidence that either the calculated grades or the final grades awarded this summer were systematically biased against candidates with protected characteristics or from disadvantaged backgrounds, which was a major concern when exams were cancelled.

Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said schools and teachers in the independent and state sectors had done their best under extremely difficult circumstances to provide accurate grades. “It was never going to be perfect, and there was always bound to be some variability between centres.”

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