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Cancelled GCSEs no barrier to starting post-16 study in England research shows

Early analysis of the number of pupils progressing to the next stage of education after their GCSEs has found very little difference between those whose exams were cancelled in 2020 due the pandemic and those who sat these the year before.

Students taking an exam in a classroom
Exam time

New research from Cambridge University Press & Assessment offers a first look at the progress of pupils in England awarded Centre Assessment Grades (CAGs) by their teachers in 2020 following the cancellation of their GCSEs.

Using data from the Post-16 Learning Aims extract of the National Pupil Database (NPD), it found they were slightly more likely to start post-16 education than those who sat exams the previous year (+1.6 percentage points). In particular, pupils were more likely to progress to qualifications at Level 3 - A Levels or equivalents - than those in the previous year (+2.9 percentage points), and to start three or more A Levels (+2.8 percentage points).

This suggests pupils who missed their GCSEs were not disadvantaged when it came to starting their A Levels and other post-16 qualifications, say the researchers. However, they caution against reading too much into the findings as retention and performance needs to be investigated when the June 2022 exam results become available to provide a more complete picture of the impact of cancelling GCSEs on pupils’ opportunities to succeed in the next phase of their education.

Lead researcher, Carmen Vidal Rodeiro, from the Assessment Research and Development team at Cambridge University Press & Assessment, said: “It is really important to make sure that the 2020 cohort is protected and supported through the journey to their next destination in education. If groups of students in the 2020 cohort were disadvantaged by the cancellation of exams in terms of their progression, it was important to discover this as soon as possible.

“In the overall picture, the difference is very small. It’s perhaps surprising, but may reflect the fact that the decision to cancel pupils’ exams came in March 2020, near the end of their studies when their plans on what to do next were already quite firm.”

While progression rates to post-16 study increased for all pupils regardless of socio-economic background, the researchers also found the increase was very slightly higher for those from the most deprived areas (+1.8 percentage points) than those from the least deprived areas (+1.5 percentage points). There was also a slight increase (+2.2 percentage points) in the numbers of pupils with lower results at GCSE continuing into post-16 education, while the proportion of those with higher results remained unchanged.

The analysis also showed pupils from the 2020 cohort were less likely to have either dropped or changed courses inside their first months of post-16 study than those who sat the exams in 2019.

Carmen added: “More generally, the effects of the disruption caused by the pandemic will be felt for years and support for those affected will be needed to minimise them. Research into the progression to post-16 and into higher education, training or employment should continue, in order to provide timely evidence to inform mitigation efforts and to make sure no student is disadvantaged.”

The full report can be read online.