After summer exams were cancelled due to the Covid-19 pandemic, there were fears that disadvantaged students could lose out from results based on teacher assessments because of the risk of bias.
Research by FFT Education Datalab found no evidence that the attainment gap had widened. Instead, it identified a slight narrowing of the gap at the crucial grade 4 or above threshold, equivalent to the bottom of an old C grade.
The 4 grade at GCSE is considered crucial because it allows pupils to go on to further study or training. Those who do not gain a 4 in English and maths must retake the exams while they remain in post-16 education.
Based on analysis of this year’s results at 1,200 secondary schools, researchers found that 56% of disadvantaged pupils achieved a grade 4 or above in English and maths at GCSE, compared with 78% of non-disadvantaged pupils.
Although at 22 percentage points, the attainment gap remains vast, it is an improvement on last year, when the comparable figures were 46% and 72%, a gap of 26 percentage points.
Philip Nye, a researcher at FFT Education Datalab, said: “After the chaos of this summer’s results season, the news that the disadvantage gap does not seem to have widened comes as a relief.
“The gap remains worryingly large – but many of us feared that disadvantaged pupils might have lost out with the cancellation of GCSE exams and the move to an alternative awarding approach. That does not seem to have happened.
“All efforts should now be made to support disadvantaged pupils who will take their GCSEs in 2021 to ensure that the attainment gap does not widen next year.”
There was an outcry among teachers and pupils after an algorithm designed by the exams regulator Ofqual to standardise results across England caused the widespread downgrading of centre-assessed grades (Cags) at A-level.
The government performed a dramatic U-turn, scrapping the algorithm and allowing Cags, set by teachers and schools, to be used instead to award grades for both A-levels and GCSEs.
Figures published by Ofqual at the start of summer showed its algorithm would probably have caused a slight widening in the attainment gap in GCSE results between pupils who were on free school meals and those who were not.