Education Secretary Gavin Williamson has revealed measures for next year’s exams including “more generous grading” so young people whose learning has been disrupted by Covid-19 are not disadvantaged.
The National Education Union says the changes are welcome but late, and that the most disadvantaged students across England could miss more school as they are more likely to live in areas with higher infection levels.
Department for Education figures show 3,629 students in Northamptonshire got grades 5 or above in their English and maths GCSEs in the 2019-20 academic year – up from 3,144 the previous summer.
Grade 5 is roughly equivalent to a low B or a high C under the old GCSE grading system.
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It means 46.7% of pupils in the area achieved a strong pass in the subjects, 5 percentage points more than 41.7% last year.
But this was still lower than the 49.9% of young people to get the higher grades across England as a whole – 6.7 percentage points above 43.2% in 2018-19.
In Northamptonshire, the average score per pupil across five core subject areas – English, maths, science, a language, and history or geography – also rose, from 3.94 to 4.2.
Nationally, the average rose from 4.07 to 4.38.
The Government performed a U-turn on grades earlier this year after exams were cancelled amid the pandemic.
Thousands of pupils had their results downgraded by an algorithm but were later given the option to use their teachers’ original predictions after widespread protests.
The DfE said the increase reflects the change in how grades were awarded rather than an improvement in standards.
The new measures for next year’s exams announced by Mr Williamson include more generous grading than usual, in line with the most recent results.
Students will get advance notice of some topics covered in their assessments, and those who miss exams due to illness or self-isolation will get a second chance to sit them.
Mary Bousted, joint general secretary of the National Education Union, said the Government has “at last shown that it is beginning to understand the concerns of teachers, parents and students about next summer’s exams”.
"Disruption has continued for thousands of students with around 20% of secondary students absent in the last week for which we have figures,” she said.
“What is even more concerning is that the students who are already the most disadvantaged are more likely to live in regions where there are high Covid-19 infection levels and are missing more schooling as a result.”
Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said the changes will make next year’s exams “as fair as they can be in the circumstances”.
He added: “It is not perfect – nothing can be, given the fact that learning has been so disrupted by coronavirus and that pupils have been affected to vastly different extents.”
Mr Williams said: “Exams are the best way of giving young people the opportunity to show what they can do, which is why it’s so important they take place next summer.
“But this isn’t business as usual. I know students are facing unprecedented disruption to their learning. That’s why exams will be different next year, taking exceptional steps to ensure they are as fair as possible.”