While news emerges of a new Covid-19 variant, in the education world, we are also getting a reminder of the ongoing effects of the pandemic. This week, GCSE results were released from the summer 2023 exams. In England, this is the first year since 2019 with pre-pandemic grade boundaries. And understandably, there is plenty of debate about whether this is fair or the right time.
Whatever your view, the return to ‘business as usual’ has brought the ongoing impact of the pandemic on education to the surface. Pre-pandemic, while pass rates were not high enough, results for 16- to 19-year-olds retaking GCSE English or maths in post-16 education were steadily increasing year-on-year. This reflected the ongoing efforts of teachers and leaders in further education to continue to develop effective strategies to support the specific needs of this cohort. But this year, the pass rate has fallen below the pre-pandemic level by 4.8 percentage points in GCSE maths and 4.4 percentage points in GCSE English.
Why would there be such a significant difference in the performance of two year groups, just four years apart? Comparing the results of 2023 and 2019 suggests that taken as a whole, the cohorts of young people moving through secondary and post-16 education are not yet at the level of their peers who sat similar exams four years ago pre-Covid.
This doesn’t mean that the cohorts don’t have the same potential. But it does mean, unsurprisingly, that missing significant amounts of education does affect how much a young person knows and performs in exams at 16. The 16- to 19-year-olds who received GCSE results this week, were in years 8 to 11 when the pandemic first hit. Over the next two years, large blocks of school or college were missed. Even now, without any lockdowns or restrictions in place, attendance levels have still not fully recovered. Across the last academic year, almost a quarter of pupils in England missed at least 10 per cent of available sessions. While everyone hoped that all children and young people would quickly catch up to where they would have been if the pandemic had never happened, we can now see that for many this isn’t the case.
This demonstrates that the impact of the pandemic on education is not a quick problem to fix. It would be foolish to think that with the return to pre-Covid grading in England, and other devolved nations from next year, the education system can now forget that the pandemic ever happened. Instead, we should be concerned by the reports of ongoing poor attendance. And we should worry that the government’s catch-up policies are currently set to end in August next year. I don’t think the government really wants this gap to become their legacy in education. Rather than let catch-up policies come to an end, they should consider how efforts to close gaps for the ‘Covid generation’ of children and young people could be scaled up.
However, it is possible to end on a positive. Although the overall pass rates are down, the number of students achieving a GCSE in English and maths in post-16 education is increasing. These young people will have achieved a pass this year, after not achieving it last year when the grade boundaries were more generous. For these young people, this is incredible progress. The Association of Colleges estimates that 87,000 young people achieved a grade 4 or above in English or maths in post-16 education this academic year. And as their director of education policy, Catherine Sezen, put it yesterday, “colleges should be proud”.