Teenagers across the country are waking up to their GCSE results in a year when the proportion of top grades awarded is expected to fall.
Hundreds of thousands of pupils in England, Wales and Northern Ireland are receiving grades to help them progress to sixth form, college or training.
Similar to the pattern with A-level results last week, it is expected that top GCSE grades will drop on last year as part of a plan to bring grades down to pre-pandemic levels in England this year.
It comes after Covid-19 led to an increase in top grades in 2020 and 2021, with results based on teacher assessments instead of exams.
Some sixth forms and colleges could decide to admit pupils with lower GCSE grades on to A-level courses this summer compared with recent years.
Greater attention may be given to the induction process for this cohort of students starting sixth form next month to ensure “they cope as best they can”, the leader of a headteachers’ union has suggested.
Last year, more than a quarter (26.3%) of UK GCSE entries were awarded top grades, compared with 28.9% in 2021 and 26.2% in 2020.
In 2019 – the year before the pandemic – around one in five (20.8%) entries in England, Wales and Northern Ireland were awarded a 7/A or above.
In England, exams regulator Ofqual has said this year’s GCSE results will be lower than last year and they would be similar to those in 2019.
Lee Elliot Major, professor of social mobility at the University of Exeter, said: “The fear for thousands of pupils is they will miss out on the basic grades they need to get into sixth form – which has the potential to damage their future life prospects.”
While traditional A*-G grades are used in Northern Ireland and Wales, in England GCSEs are graded using a numerical system from 9 to 1 rather than from A* to G – with 9 being the highest grade.
A 4 is broadly equivalent to a C grade, and a 7 is broadly equivalent to an A.
Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said it was “likely” that sixth forms and colleges could lower their entry requirements for this year’s cohort of students.
He told the PA news agency: “You’re not going to expect the same standard of youngsters coming in when you know that nationally the bar has been moved back to where it was in 2019.
“It’s not a straightforward thing because what you don’t want is a youngster who’s got a grade 6 going on to a physics course and not coping with it because they’ll drop out.”
When asked whether there could be more drop-outs from A-level courses, Mr Barton said: “I think what it will mean is that the way in which teaching starts in September will be the main focus. There will be more emphasis on induction skills to make sure those youngsters very quickly feel confident.
“My guess is that what we will see is a generosity of spirit not just in who is brought into a sixth form, but also the individual attention they get from their teachers to make sure they cope as best they can.”
Bill Watkin, chief executive of the Sixth Form Colleges Association (SFCA), said it was “possible” that some sixth forms and colleges will lower the GCSE grades required for entry compared with last year.
He told PA: “I think entry level requirements compared to the last two years might be flexed to accommodate people who have got lower grades than they would have got in the last two years.
“But what no-one wants to do is to raise false hopes by saying ‘Oh, you’ve got 3s and 4s in your GCSEs. I’m sure last year they would have been 4s and 5s so let’s put you on an A-level course’. Because the bottom line is if you do that you risk a young person being overstretched and very unhappy.”
Earlier this week, Professor Alan Smithers, director of the Centre for Education and Employment Research (CEER) at the University of Buckingham, suggested 300,000 fewer top GCSE grades could be awarded this summer.
The results for many Level 2 vocational and technical qualifications (VTQs) will also be awarded to students on Thursday.
Education Secretary Gillian Keegan said: “This cohort have shown tremendous resilience in recent years and should be proud of all the work they’ve done to reach this milestone.
“Grading is returning to normal which means a pupil who would have achieved a grade 4 before the pandemic is just as likely to achieve that this year.”
She added: “Students now have more options to choose from than ever before – such as our high-quality T-levels, including legal and agriculture starting from this September.
“They can also take A-levels or earn and learn on a wide range of apprenticeships, from journalism to accountancy.
“Whichever path students decide to take, they can have confidence it will set them up for a successful career. I wish everyone the very best as they move on to their next chapter.”
In Scotland, the national results for the National 5 qualifications were published earlier in the month and showed that the pass rate was 78.8% – down from 80.8% last year, but up from 78.2% in 2019.