GCSE Results: State sector closes gap on private schools

Henry Stewart's picture
Results in Comprehensives Rise while those in Private Schools Fall

The GCSE results show a narrowing of the gap between local state schools and the private sector. The % of grades at comprehensives & academies that were A or A* rose from 18.3% in 2010 to 20.2% in 2011 and the % that were C and above rose from 66.2% to 68%. This follows on from last year’s rise, when the % A or A* rose by 0.9%, while those achieving C or better rose by 2.2%. This is unlikely to be due to easier exams as in both years the proportions in private schools fell (those achieving A or A* in the independent sector fell from 53.5% in 2010 to 51.7% in 2011).

For those who believe in good local schools, this is time to celebrate. Every year, results in state schools are getting steadily better and the gap between the state and private sector is getting less. This is not a surprise to anybody who regularly visits our schools. There is some truly great learning taking place, with lots of creativity and challenge. Let us celebrate the real progress being made.

Last week the A level results revealed the same trend, with 23.4% of grades in state schools being an A or A*. This is a rise from 22.2% in 2009 and 22.7% in 2010. In contrast the proportion achieving A or A* in private schools was the same as last year, indicating a closing of the gap at A levels as well as at GCSE.

I see this in our local schools in Hackney, where results are now well above the national average. In the school where I am chair, Stoke Newington School, the proportion achieving A or A* in all Year 13 exams rose from 33% in 2010 to 55% this year, placing the school in the top 10% in the country for value added. Similarly, the proportion achieving 5 GCSEs (including English and Maths) increased by 11% to 60% of the students.

Headteacher Annie Gammon commented: I want to congratulate all our students who achieved or exceeded their target grades at whatever level these were. We have an ambitious, creative and inclusive school which provides high-quality teaching and aims for outstanding progress for all students. This year’s results are a real step forward for us as our students’ progress and achievements show significant improvement. Congratulations to all involved.”


GCSE 2011 results: http://www.jcq.org.uk/attachments/published/1595/GCSE%20Charts%20and%20data%20handout.pdf (p3)

GCSE 2010 results: http://www.jcq.org.uk/attachments/published/1321/GCSE%20Results%20Handout.pdf (p7)

These show the raw figures for comprehensives increasing. However many of the most successful comprehensives have become academies in the last year and the figures quoted above are the result of combining the different lines for ‘comprehensives’ and ‘academies’ (in the proportion 3.8:1, based on JCQ figures).

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Nigel Ford's picture
Thu, 25/08/2011 - 12:22

Nice one Henry.

The default position of the private schools will be that they take harder subjects.

How did your daughter do in her A'levels, Fee?

Andy's picture
Thu, 25/08/2011 - 13:16

This is my first visit to this website.

I have no strong feelings one way or another on private education, but have experience of both. One son is in state, on in private. It was a decision we made based on the needs of our children.

I find it really comical though that there are headlines on here like this.

"Closing the Gap"?

When one is running at >50% and the other is bearly making 20%?

That's like saying Peterborough United are closing the gap on Man Utd! You're comparing two completely different things that just happen to be football clubs.

Private education is always going to be leagues ahead of state provision. With the sort of money involved, there would have to be serious questions if it were not.

What should be concentrated on though are the issues within the same league.

Why do girls outperform boys? Why are certain ethnic groups achieving more than others? Does the best performance come in single sex or mixed schools? Are schools that are based on religion better or worse.

Those are the important questions. Not silly state/independent squabbles. Independent schools are here to stay, and even at current rates of gain, it will be decades before state schools can compete on results, if ever.

Change what you can change, accept what you can't, and have the wisdom to know the difference.


Clare Mackenzie's picture
Thu, 25/08/2011 - 13:42

Exam results and their year on year improvement always make me laugh. Very soon we'll need to introduce the A** grade!

Helen Ryan's picture
Thu, 25/08/2011 - 14:01

At the islington state school where I teach, our results have risen to over 60%. I believe our provision to be leagues ahead of private schools given that we do not select on ability, social class or economic factors. Sadly, it is rare that state schools are analysed or celebrated with the same reverence that is afforded to the private schools.

The lack of social mobility in Britain is a real and very important issue. It is blinkered to ignore this and the influence that private schools have on this is worth a great deal more analysis. State schools are not just competing on results.

Clare Mackenzie's picture
Thu, 25/08/2011 - 14:07

Unfortunately some people are less equal than others.

Itsmotherswork's picture
Thu, 25/08/2011 - 14:18

"Closing the gap" on independent schools does matter (as long as it's not achieved by those schools getting poorer results) because it shows how much can be achieved with much more limited school resources and a more diverse intake. I agree that there are plenty of 'within sector' issues to explore and improve, but to imply that there's no point in trying to stretch to close the gap feels a bit like telling those of us who are committed to community schools not to get ideas above our station. Personally and professionally - and not just because my children will all be educated in our local community schools - I really want to support and challenge those schools to keep doing better. Community schools have been asked to accept a new 'floor' - fair enough, but let's not accept a ceiling.

Adrian Elliott's picture
Thu, 25/08/2011 - 15:06

In response to Andy, I think you have to look at Henry's comments in the context of years of denigration of the state sector,especially of LA comprehensive schools, in the national press. I suspect he might not have written this piece (or last weeks) if the press was not so deeply biased against state schools.

Assuming his figures are correct, there isn't the slightest doubt that not a single paper from the Murdoch, Mail or Telegraph stables would ever run an article pointing out such a trend . But pieces arguing the other way appear almost weekly in national papers.

When the Conservative party was pushing their grant maintained policy in the early nineties, the Telegraph published a list of the top 200 comprehensive schools based on the most recent set of A level results. The paper pointed out that the 'vast majority' were grant maintained. I sat down (sad man!) and checked out the lot. In fact, just over 60% were LA maintained .

It is that kind of routine disregard for the truth for political/ideological reasons which leads to people like Henry taking the stance he does and I fully understand it.
I did write to the Telegraph as head of one of the schools about whom the article had been written : guess whether it was published or not!

Ballstoit's picture
Thu, 25/08/2011 - 16:19

The danger of generalising. As much as there are good state schools and less good state schools, there's also a massive mix within the private sector. I noticed this morning at my old school 99.52% of GCSEs were grade A* and A. 35% of the year for 10 A*s.

At the same time, there's copious amounts of sport, music, drama, debating, community outreach. Now that's an education worth paying for.

Janet Downs's picture
Thu, 25/08/2011 - 16:31

Andy - international research by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) found that private schools do not raise the overall performance of a country's school pupils, and publicly funded/controlled schools performed to the same standard as private schools when they had the same standard of intake. It's actually the intake that makes the school. This is discussed in more detail here:


and a recent report from the Institute of Fiscal Studies confirmed that it's a school's intake that governs its results:


As Adrian says, the state sector is routinely condemned by the Government, who mislead the electorate by misrepresenting data by international organisations like the OECD, and the media who write nonsense such as the UK having one of the worst education systems in the world:


Henry Stewart's picture
Thu, 25/08/2011 - 18:02

Andy, a big welcome to the Local Schools Network. I hope you will visit frequently.

Its true private school results are still well ahead of state schools, which isn't surprising given their priviliged intake classes etc. Firstly if state school results are rising and private ones aren't, it indicates the improvements are genuine and not just due to easier exams and 'grade inflation'.

Secondly there is a lot of media coverage, often inaccurate, of how much better private schools supposedly do. (eg, the Guardian article last week falsely claiming that the gap was widening). In this context it is important to look at the actual figures and see the gap is narrowing.

Thirdly, in a context where state schools are continually attacked and denigrated, we really should be celebrating facts like this. State schools are doing better than last year, when they did better than the year before, when they did better than the year before that. The investment that has gone in appears to be paying off and it means more students - including those from less priviliged backgrounds - leaving with better results. And that is good news for all.

Janet Downs's picture
Fri, 26/08/2011 - 09:52

FullFact.org looked at this year's GCSE results to substantiate (or repudiate) claims made in the media. One trend FullFact discovered was that the attainment gap (measured by the number of pupils gaining 5 GCSEs C and above) between pupils on free school meals and more advantaged pupils is narrowing. The full story is here:


JimC's picture
Sat, 27/08/2011 - 07:51

Interesting. I heard that GCSE entries for Modern Foreign Languages, Design and Technology and ICT were all down this year. Care to comment on what might be replacing them (OCR Core Nationals in ICT, Business skills, work skills, Diplomas) and how these replacements affect the league table position of state schools?

O. Spencer's picture
Sat, 27/08/2011 - 15:21

I was very proud of my old comp, leading the way as ever in the local authority tables (miles ahead of the two academies) with an amazing 75% A*-C inc. English and Maths.

For a local school this is clearly fantastic. I just hope the EBacc figures will show the school continues to offer the broad range of academic subjects it did when I attended.

However, I can't help but feel a little sad that the nearest schools to the west and south of my old school had GCSE pass figures as much as 30% lower.

In celebrating the continued success of my former school, it's appropriate to think about why there might be a variation of as much as 30% within a radius of a few miles.

Does the school attract the best teachers? Are the parents more interested in education and more engaged? Is the intake especially bright?
(I doubt it, many in my year left with 0-2 GCSEs at D or below)

I don't have any answers. I do know the intake of FSM is much much below the national average and the area is generally considered to be the 'nicest' in the LA.

The 2 academies (inner city) have improved results but in the case of one teaching staff and cohort from the school when it was a comp stayed on to take GCSEs. So arguably the results would have improved anyway.

It's also interesting that the first newspaper to jump on the 'gap' agenda was the Guardian. You might expect it from the Telegraph - catering to an independent school audience.

I would have thought the Guardian would be the only paper defending state schools.

Janet Downs's picture
Sun, 28/08/2011 - 07:06

A press release from the Joint Council for Qualifications comments on this year's GCSE results: entries for separate sciences and religious studies have increased while entries for modern foreign languages, history, geography, design and technology, and ICT decreased.


The press release doesn't mention alternative exams like BTec which carry an equivalence to GCSE. These exams have been described as the "easier alternative" to academic GCSEs. To avoid this accusation I think it would be better if the equivalence measure was dropped and league tables listed GCSEs and vocational exams separately. Vocational exams, which are a valuable alternative to GCSEs for some students, would then stand on their own merit. However, this is not likely to happen because the Department of Education has agreed the equivalence levels. For example, a BTEC award at Level 2 is equivalent to GCSE A*-C, a BTEC award Level 1 is equivalent to GCSE D-G.


JimC's picture
Tue, 30/08/2011 - 06:36

My experience of separate Sciences is that top sets are automatically entered for them and in many schools anyone who is unlikely to get a C grade in GCSE Core or Additional Science is pushed to do BTEC.

I hear that this little fiddle is coming to an end though because, as you say, BTEC isn't going to count for as much in the league tables.

Janet Downs's picture
Tue, 30/08/2011 - 07:27

JimC - I didn't say that BTEC "isn't going to count for as much in the league tables". I said I thought they should stand on their own merits. However, it's the DfE that sets out the equivalence. And commentators who criticise BTEC don't often differentiate between Level 1 and Level 2 BTECs, just lumping them all together under the description of soft subjects.


The argument over BTECs demonstrates once again the government's muddled thinking over education. On the one hand, Mr Gove praises Lord Young's initiative to establish a chain of University Technical Colleges designed to offer vocational education to 14-19 year olds, while at the same time he denounces the vocational exams that are already in existence, does not acknowledge the work that is already being done by further education colleges in this area, and says the EBac will reinforce academic rigour.

In the meantime, the executive chairman of Google says he's "flabbergasted" that computer science isn't part of the core curriculum in UK schools. Yet ICT is one of the "non-preferred" subjects by top universities and it's not in the EBac. This means that fewer pupils will study it,


Janet Downs's picture
Sun, 28/08/2011 - 07:31

O Spencer: I think you've answered your own question about how your old school was able to outperform neighbouring schools. It's the intake. The effect of a school's intake on school performance is regularly discussed on this site (see below): pupils in a school with a largely advantaged intake perform better than pupils in a school with a largely disadvantaged intake.



The sloppiness of the Guardian's article was highlighted by Henry Stewart on this site. He received a tweet from the journalists responsible for the article in which they admitted it was "ill-judged". Perhaps they'll be a bit more careful in the future.


O. Spencer's picture
Sun, 28/08/2011 - 11:01

Yes Janet I agree - clearly it's not the school per se that get the results - it's the individual pupils. So there must be a massive difference in the ability of the cohort of my former school who have managed to achieve 75% A*-C and the neighbouring schools who are languishing in the 40-50% range.

I suppose my question really ought to have been a 'why' rather than 'how'.

Is educational ability really so segregated along socio-economic lines? If yes - what is to be done? Wage war on the sharp-elbowed? Parenting lessons for the deprived? Raise aspiration?

It seems from the two articles you link me to that the best thing for poor children is to disperse them from schools in 'poor' areas and distribute them across schools in leafier areas.

My old school has the best CVA scores for the area. So not only does it potentially start off with an advantaged intake in Year 7, it develops those talents through to Year 11 better than any other school in the area. So even the neighbouring schools with a less advantaged intake cannot improve attainment as much.

I think we also need to link up state school achievement and the wider economy. The figures for NEETs are grim reading, for example.

On A Level results day, BBC Breakfast interviewed several pupils (all state educated) who could not get a university place despite achieving A grades. In most cases this was because of A level subjects studied.

The raw figures might show a closing of the gap but state school pupils are still being handicapped when applying to university and many school leavers are without a job or training.

N.B. for the avoidance of doubt I am not laying the blame for the above paragraph at the door of state schools. I am just interested in how the independent school pupils seem to be so much better informed than state school pupils.

We all know children spend many hours on the internet and the right information is out there. Why are particularly state school pupils not accessing it or not heeding it?

Janet Downs's picture
Sun, 28/08/2011 - 15:18

OECD research reveals that the best type of school for all pupils, advantaged and disadvantaged, is one containing a majority of advantaged pupils. The pupil premium, whereby advantaged schools are encouraged to take more disadvantaged pupils is a step in the right direction. However, this policy would need close monitoring in case advantaged schools cherrypick only high ability children on free school meals (FSM) and dissuade the challenging or less bright FSM children from applying.

OECD discussed the reasons why some students overcome their socio-economic background (PISA in Focus 5). These "resilient" students were found to be self-confident and motivated, and to attend schools that provided them with more learning time during regular school hours. Enrichment classes after school can improve equity but only if provided by a teacher from the school: OECD (PISA in Focus 3) found that "after-school classes with a teacher who is not from the school can exacerbate inequities among students". It's the quality, not the quantity of teaching that is important.

High-quality careers education and advice is essential to provide pupils with the skills and knowledge to plan wisely for a future career. John Hayes, the Minister for Skills and Lifelong Learning, is a passionate advocate of careers education. He has ensured that the Education Bill has a clause requiring all schools to provide independent careers advice. However, his honourable intentions are being scuppered by his own government through lack of funding and the academy programme which allows academies to save money by purchasing cheaper services. Schools may be required to provide independent advice but this could be as little as access to a website. Schools may not wish to pay for the more expensive but more worthwhile face-to-face interviews with a professional, properly trained careers adviser.



Nigel Ford's picture
Sun, 28/08/2011 - 19:11

One of the problems is that state educated pupils do not come from a parental background where university has featured in their past so they are unfamiliar with the pecking order of the Russell Group/1994 Group/Alliance Universities. A former workmate of mine who's daughter attended De Monfort University had no idea of its status relative to other universities.

A lad who plays in my cricket team got top A'level grades from his comp in Wales and was studying sports journalism at a former poly. I asked him why he didn't attend Loughborough and he replied it didn't do his particular course. Really he would have been better off studying something more rigorous like History or Politics at a more established university if he wanted to do journalism, specialising in Sport, to enhance his job prospects. Independent schools are better at giving this information than the state sector.

Janet Downs's picture
Mon, 29/08/2011 - 12:28

Careers education and guidance (CEG) has often been seen as a bolt-on when it's actually an essential part of education. Private schools don't really do it better - it's just that they have expertise in providing advice in one particular area - university entrance. State schools need to provide CEG to a wide range of abilities. The Technical and Vocational Education (TVEI) in the '80s recognised this. It raised the profile of CEG and ensured that most secondary schools offered work experience and other work-related activities such as Industry Days. However, CEG seems to be experiencing problems despite the enthusiastic support of the minister, John Hayes. Too many schools with sixth-forms have a vested interest in keeping their pupils rather than giving them information about other options which may be more suitable (eg further education college, apprenticeships and so on) because money follows the pupil. That's why access to face-to-face interviews with an independent, fully-trained, professional careers advisor is essential.

Simon Hughes, the Lib Dem deputy leader recently published a document calling for earlier and better careers education.


But this was included in the 2009 Careers Education framework 7-19 published by the last government:


and this document in turn grew from the earlier TVEI iniative over 25 years ago.

Perhaps, one day, careers education and guidance will be treated seriously by schools, and politicians won't have to keep reinventing the wheel.

O. Spencer's picture
Tue, 30/08/2011 - 19:25

One thing which irks me about much of the careers discussion you hear in the press and media is the idea that you have 'university' as in itself comprising an elite kind of education and 'apprenticeships' on the other for the not so bright doing quite hands-on work.

Never is it discussed that many hundreds of courses at dozens of universities are in effect worthless. For example there are many computer games design courses that are not recognised by the industry. There are many law courses which are not 'qualifying' law degrees for the purpose of training to be a solicitor/barrister.

In addition many university courses ask for only Cs or Ds at A Level. How on earth can these be held in the same regard as a course in medicine or a rigorous subject at an elite institution requiring A*s and As? It shouldn't be considered 'elitist' to say this! Is this really how far the 'university' label has stretched to ensure a degree for everyone?

Many so called 'careers' experts who appeared on TV in the days after A Level results kept telling would-be students to apply for the course they wanted as 'the right course next year is better than the wrong course this year.' Forget the small matter of fee increases..

It is never recognised that apprenticeships are actually incredibly competitive to get. The Guardian reported last year that BT received 24000 applications for just 220 apprenticeships.

This is as competitive as many of the graduate-level roles such law, finance, accountacy, banking etc. As a guide the top London corporate law firms receive c. 2,000-3,000 applications for c. 100 vacancies.

Janet Downs's picture
Wed, 31/08/2011 - 09:49

The "status" of a university should be irrelevant when considering the standard of the degree awarded. The Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education said it was important that degrees were comparable irrespective of the institution awarding the degree:

“While the freedom of institutions to design and run their own courses is
important, it is equally important that degrees from different institutions
across the UK are broadly comparable.” (Quality Assurance Agency for
Higher Education, 2009a)

However, the Higher Education Policy Institute wonders if this commitment to comparability can be sustained:

“the UK has had a strong attachment to the principle of comparability of degree standards. However, it is increasingly doubtful whether, in a diverse mass system that incorporates significant student choice, a real degree of comparability, in the sense of equivalent levels of student learning achievement across all institutions and subjects, is practicable or even desirable. However, this need not mean a dilution of standards – minimum standards need to be maintained, and as far as possible differences in standards should be recognised and described.”


Janet Downs's picture
Wed, 31/08/2011 - 09:51

Although ‘A’ levels are the main route into university, there are other qualifications and UCAS developed a table of equivalence called the tariff. However, that is now under review because the tariff wasn’t keeping up with the burgeoning number of qualifications. UCAS took evidence from focus groups and found, among other things, that:

1Not all universities used the tariff, and some higher education institutions only considered ‘A’ levels and not equivalent qualifications like BTEC level 3.
2Some qualifications were omitted from the tariff.
3Some focus groups wanted particular qualifications, such as music, dropped from the amended tariff. Others wanted only academic qualifications to be included.
4Information on the UCAS site sometimes differed from that given by a particular university.
5There was confusion about the tariff among such people as admission tutors, careers professionals, school teachers and so on.
6Information given about particular courses was not always explicit about what admission tutors required eg certain combination of subjects for a particular degree.
7One university was proposing to insist that all candidates from 2012 had a modern language GCSE. This was regarded as a barrier to higher education, particularly when there was no requirement for school pupils to continue studying a modern language from age 14. UCAS was unsure how such decisions made by individual universities could be accommodated in the amended tariff.


UCAS hopes that a final draft re an amended tariff will be available for consultation in early 2012.

The tariff in use at the moment is here:


And info on how the tariff works is here:


Henry Stewart’s interesting post suggests that this summer (and last summer) the proportion of GCSE entries from independent schools awarded an A* or A fell. Unfortunately, this is not the full picture. Pupils at independent schools have been taking increasing numbers of IGCSEs in recent years and, naturally, these figures are not included in the GCSE stats from JCQ that Henry Stewart quotes. Last summer, over half of Year 11 pupils at independent schools (or rather, schools forming part of the Independent Schools Council) took at least one IGCSE. 16.7% of all independent school Year 11 exam entries were for IGCSEs rather than GCSEs. The IGCSE therefore represents an important part of the picture and should not be overlooked. If IGCSE results are combined with GCSE results at independent schools 61.4% of entries last summer were awarded an A* or A, a rise of 1.2 percentage points on last year. Using this same method there was also a rise between 2009 and 2010, albeit of 0.4 percentage points.

More information can be found here: http://www.isc.co.uk/publication_4_0_0_26_976.htm

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