The drop in GCSE grades this year has been caused partly by high rates of anxiety and absence, according to headteachers
“Most schools are carrying a large number of pupils who have been persistently absent and that will impact on their overall figures. The immediate concern is for the young people themselves, because they’ve not had the adjustments that previous years have." Ben Davis, headteacher, St Ambrose Barlow RC high school, Swinton
High levels of absence and mental ill health are likely to have had an impact on today’s GCSE results, headteachers have said.
GCSE results in England, Wales and Northern Ireland have fallen for a second year running, with 68.2% of all grades marked at grades 4 (or C) or above. This is similar to the last pre-pandemic year, 2019, when the figure was 67.3%
This is a substantial fall from the past two years when the equivalent figures were 73.2% in 2022 and 77.1% in 2021.
The drop has been steepest in England, where it was decided that grades should be brought back in line with 2019 levels today.
An unprecedented number of pupils had either failed to turn up or had walked out in the middle of exams, heads told the Guardian earlier this week. They said that schools had been struggling with abnormal levels of anxiety among pupils, as well as the aftermath of Covid and the effects of the cost-of-living crisis hitting disadvantaged families in particular.
Evelyn Forde, the headteacher of Copthall school for girls in Mill Hill, north London, told the paper: “This is not a normal year. I know we are all trying to get back to normal, but there are things like the mental health crisis which mean it isn’t normal.
“We had more students absent from exams than we’ve ever had before. We had more students walk out of an exam than we’ve ever had before. I think that’s to do with the whole stress and anxiety they are facing.
“School leaders have tried as much as we can to prepare them, but for some of them, mentally and emotionally, they just found it too much.”
She said that high absence rates among teachers and the pupils facing exams were likely to lead to lower GCSE grades: “Some of my girls had not had a substantive science teacher for the whole year. We’ve got three unfilled science posts.”
Ben Davis, the head of St Ambrose Barlow RC high school in Swinton, Greater Manchester, said high absence rates and the severe disruption caused by Covid had made it difficult to embed good learning habits in the lead-up to this year’s exams.
“I think this year is the one where people are most nervous and most uncertain. They’ve definitely been impacted more than previous year 11s, that’s very evident in the absence statistics,” he said.
“Most schools are carrying a large number of pupils who have been persistently absent and that will impact on their overall figures. The immediate concern is for the young people themselves, because they’ve not had the adjustments that previous years have.
“What we’ve seen is a significant impact on young people’s mental health and wellbeing and we think that will play out in their results. Young people who are at some kind of disadvantage because of social or family circumstances, or special education needs are more at risk, undoubtedly.
“A lot of schools have really struggled to do their best by their pupils because the system has worked against them. We’ve all done our absolute level best but it’s been difficult.”
Earlier this year the Guardian reported that one in 10 pupils taking GCSEs in year 11 were absent from school in England each day, an increase of 70% since before the Covid pandemic.
This year, as predicted, GCSE grades have fallen back to pre-pandemic level. As the government had stated its intention to reduce the grade inflation caused by teacher marking during the pandemic years, this is not entirely surprising. We can’t be sure, therefore, to what extent the drop in grades was affected by a rise in mental ill-health. The fact that headteachers have spoken of high rates of anxiety amongst pupils, to the extent that many were missing lessons or walking out of exams, is in itself worrying, however. We know from other sources that the number of young people experiencing mental health problems has risen steeply in the past few years, and if this rise continues, schools will need more resources to support these pupils.