‘Growing disparity’ between most and least advantaged A-level students

The attainment gap for the top grades between the north and south of England continues to be larger than it was before the pandemic, figures show.

This year’s A-level results show a “growing disparity” between the most and least advantaged students, social mobility experts have warned.

The Sutton Trust and the Social Mobility Foundation have voiced concerns about the regional differences in educational achievement, as well as the attainment gap between pupils at private schools and those in state schools.

The attainment gap for the highest A-level grades between the north and south of England continues to be larger than it was before the pandemic, although it has narrowed slightly this year, figures show.

The North East and Yorkshire & the Humber are the only two regions of England where the proportion of A-level entries awarded the top grades – A* and A – is lower this year than in 2019.

Every other region has seen the proportion remain above pre-pandemic levels, according to analysis by the PA news agency.

In north-east England, 22.0% of entries were awarded top grades this year, down from 23.0% in 2019, while in Yorkshire & the Humber the figure for 2023 is 23.0%, down from 23.2% in 2019.

Sir Peter Lampl, founder and chairman of the Sutton Trust, said: “ All youngsters receiving their results today should be proud of their achievements in the face of major challenges.

“The overall picture today is one of growing disparity between the most and least well-off young people.

“There are significant regional differences in attainment, with top grades falling most in the North East while they have increased most in London and the South East, in line with patterns of regional prosperity.”

There is an 8.3 percentage point difference between the proportion of entries awarded A or above in south-east England (30.3%) and north-east England (22.0%) this year.

This is down from 8.7 percentage points in 2022 but larger than the 5.3-point gap in 2019.

Before the pandemic the gap between these two regions had been getting smaller, only for this trend to go into reverse from 2020 to 2022.

Similarly, the gap for grades of A and above between London and north-east England stood at 8.0 percentage points this year, down from 8.2 points in 2022 but well above the 3.9 points in 2019.

Lee Elliot Major, professor of social mobility at the University of Exeter, said: “This year’s results have confirmed our greatest fears – education inequalities have widened in the post-pandemic era, and social mobility has taken a backward step.”

The attainment gap for the top A-level grades between comprehensive schools and independent schools continues to be larger than it was before the pandemic, although it has narrowed this year.

Some 22.0% of A-level entries at comprehensives in England were awarded grades of A or above, compared with 47.4% at independent schools – a gap of 25.4 percentage points.

This is down from a gap of 27.6 points in 2022 and 31.2 points in 2021, but still larger than the 24.7-point gap in the pre-pandemic year of 2019.

(PA Graphics)

The attainment gap at grades C or above has widened to 15.6 points (73.4% of entries at comprehensives versus 89.0% at private schools), up from 12.0 points last year and 15.4 points in 2019.

Sarah Atkinson, chief executive of the Social Mobility Foundation, said: “Concerningly, the results today show a worrying trend of growing inequality of attainment, both regionally, with the North East falling behind London and the South East and a widening the attainment gap between independent and state schools.

“Too many young people are continuing to shoulder the burden of the pandemic. While the Government has returned to pre-pandemic grading this year, it doesn’t mean they should return to pre-pandemic education support.

“The Government must prioritise closing the attainment gap and focus on ensuring the education system is a driver of social mobility, not an engine of inequality.”

Chris Zarraga, director of Schools North East, said: “If these challenges across different stages are not addressed, we risk this year’s gaps and inequalities becoming the norm.

“Summer results may continue to reflect the legacy of the pandemic for years to come, as students who lived through lockdown, at various stages of their education, progress through school towards their GCSE and A-level exams.

“Recognition of the perennial contextual challenges, and the impact of the pandemic on more than just those students that had exams cancelled, is long overdue.”

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