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11 August 2021updated 04 Sep 2021 1:33pm

A-level results show a growing gap between private school and state school students

Privately educated students receiving a grade A or above has risen by 26 percentage points, compared to 19 percentage points for state school students. 

By Polly Bindman

Analysis of this year’s A-level results shows a growing gap between the percentage of private school and state school students awarded top grades.

Data from Ofqual shows that the percentage of privately educated students receiving a grade A or above has risen from 44 per cent in 2019 – when exams were last held pre-pandemic – to 70 per cent in 2021, or 26 percentage points, in comparison with only 19 percentage points for state school students.

Inequality gap widens for top A-level grades
Percentage of students awarded grade A or above for different centre types, 2019 and 2021

For the second year running, traditional summer exams were suspended due to the pandemic. Instead, teachers awarded students grades based on their learning throughout the year. Commenting on its own analysis of the results, The Sutton Trust, an education charity, tweeted: "We're seeing growing gaps between independent and state schools at the top grades, which is a real cause of concern." This year’s A-level results follow a turbulent year for all schools, teachers and pupils.

Speaking to the BBC Radio 4 Today programme on 10 August, the shadow education secretary Kate Green attributed some of the blame for regional and sectoral grade disparities to the government: "I think there are real inequities to be concerned about in these results and that was to a degree inevitable because the government left it to schools to decide how they would carry out assessments and we know that means students haven't been assessed identically in every school, in every part of the country."

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[See also: Covid Cohort: How do A-level students feel about results day 2021?]

Commenting on the differences between 2020 and 2021 results, which saw a similar disparity (independent school grades rose 9.3 percentage points from last year, in comparison 6.2 per cent for state schools), Ofqual suggested a potential explanation for these differences: "the extent to which they have increased may partly reflect long standing differences in the distribution of grades for different centre types", where in "normal years, the distribution of grades for students attending independent centres is clustered around the top grades."

According to Ofqual, this means that a "uniform increase in grades awarded across all types of school and college is therefore most likely to benefit students attending independent schools at the top grades."

[See also: Our fear of algorithms has undermined this year’s A-level grades and failed students]