Private schools in England accused of ‘gaming the system’ on lockdown exam results | Private schools

Dramatic drops in top GCSE and A-level results in England’s private schools this summer have led to accusations that they “gamed” the system last year, when teachers awarded grades.

Official figures show the proportion of GCSEs graded 7 to 9 in private schools fell from 61.2% last year to 53% this year, when pupils had to sit exams – an 8.2 percentage point drop.

The difference was three times greater than that of comprehensives, which saw a 2.7 percentage point decline, from 26% last year to 23.3% this year.

The pattern was repeated with A-levels, where private schools saw a more dramatic fall in A*/A grades than other types of schools following the reintroduction of public examinations after three years. The proportion of A*/A entries at private schools fell from 70% in 2021 to 58% this summer. Across grammar schools, A*/A grades dropped from 57% to 50%.

At some private secondaries and sixth-form colleges, where as many as 90% of results were given A*s by teachers last summer, the grade level crashed by 25-30 percentage points.

Robert Halfon, the Conservative chair of the education select committee, said this year’s results showed the private sector had “milked the system for all it was worth” in the pandemic .

“These differences show how vital exams are. The decision to try to eliminate grade inflation and protect the currency of these qualifications is the right one. We need to go back to the integrity of 2019 grade profiles. It seems the independent sector milked the school-assessed grade system for all it was worth. That is why Ofqual’s plan to reign in grade inflation is the right one.”

In a bid to avoid exposing grade inflation last year, some schools that would usually publicise pupils’ success are keeping their full results secret. The Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference (HMC), which represents leading independent schools, has advised its members against publishing whole cohort results to “prevent unhelpful comparisons between the GCSE and A-level results this year and previous years, which have either used different assessment methods or different standards”.

Critics said schools that manipulated the system under teacher-assessed grades have widened the education attainment gap between working-class pupils and those from more affluent backgrounds. They accused the government of allowing soaring grades at some schools to go unchecked last year. This summer, Ofqual set national exams pass marks to rein in grade inflation towards 2019 levels.

Bridget Phillipson, Labour’s shadow education secretary, said: “Some private schools are gaming the system and there is no transparency. Labour called for an inquiry into last year’s grades but ministers have been happy to let inequalities grow.

“It’s essential that there’s a level playing field for all students, but the Conservatives have presided over a yawning attainment gap between state and private school students, which has risen since 2019. Labour would end tax breaks for private schools to fund a brilliant state education for every child.”

One analysis of A-level results by Education Datalab concluded that the claim that private schools “fiddled” results was “a little harsh”. It said that, while the absolute difference in percentages of A*/A grades in 2022 compared to 2021 showed one of the greatest declines across independent schools in relative terms, privately educated students were around 20% more likely to receive an A/A* grade in 2021 than in 2022, but the same was true for pupils at academies, comprehensive schools and secondary moderns.

Barnaby Lenon, chairman of the Independent School Council, said: “Last year’s teacher-assessed grades were subject to rigorous quality checks. Exam boards found no evidence to suggest any type of school or college was more likely to have provided grades that did not reflect the standard of their students’ work.”

The HMC declined to comment.

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