As the academic year continues for the GCSE hopefuls of year 11, one big question hangs in the air: why is there such a disparity in grades issued by state and private schools?

The growing gap in grading

Since 2020, government-implemented teacher assessments have determined pupils’ grades to deal with the disruptions in teaching caused by the pandemic.

This grading gap widened further in the second year as GCSE and A-level marks were formally issued by teachers. The results were stark. Seventy per cent of independent school pupils were awarded the top grades of A and A* for A-Level in comparison to 39 per cent for those at state schools. Back in 2019, the grade gap between private and state schools stood at 24 per cent for grades A and A* at A-Level. By 2021, it has risen to 31 per cent. This raises the question of whether the grades were fully deserved or enhanced to satisfy the demands arising from a fee-paying education.

This year, concern has deepened. The chasm could widen further as it emerges the government intends to implement a more lenient method of examination by which students will be able to choose the topics they are assessed on.

Although grade averages have increased considerably from students of all backgrounds, the increase seen from independent schools has been significantly higher. In a recent interview, Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi stated that he is putting ‘fairness at the heart’ of the ongoing decision over how public exams will be taken. What he didn’t point out, however, is how he intends to ensure this ‘fairness’ and whether the measures taken will differ for state and independent establishments (with the latter already known to have benefitted from additional teaching hours).

Grades reflect social status

Grading variances between private and state-funded schools are said to have a direct correlation with poverty. Evidence shows that the presence of an educated parental figure is more likely to instill a lifestyle conducive to studying by increasing concentration and preventing avoidable absences due to illness. However, children from low-income families enrolled at state schools are more likely to engage in ‘externalising’ behaviour. This behaviour disrupts their own learning and that of others by significantly cutting learning time and preventing knowledge from being cemented in the lead-up to exams. Additionally, such factors as one-on-one assistance — already accounted for in private schools — and a reduction in class size, are all likely to influence a child’s learning rate. When exam season comes around, children in private education are more prepared, more confident with the content, and usually have better parental and teacher access when problems arise. These children do not fear being stigmatized by asking for help.

According to a recent Ofqual report:

‘students from middle-class families [were] nearly 1.5 times more likely to be spending more than 5 hours per day learning than students from working-class families’.

This poses another useful question: is the grading gap a result of the school the child attends or the supportiveness of their domestic environment? Pritchard, one of the many individuals researching this distinction, estimates that those from high-socio economic groups have a 21 per cent reduction in learning compared to 34 per cent in the lowest socio-economic groups, accounting for school closures, hours of studying and the effectiveness of remote learning.

The technology gap

The majority of private-funded schools provided their students with electronic devices (such as the ubiquitous iPad) to assist with remote learning. Personal ownership of technology not only makes students more self-efficient from the outset but also increases motivation by encouraging them to take responsibility for how and when they learn. Of course, the device alone does not guarantee success. It’s what the student does with it, combined with how the teacher decides to apply it to their educational development. During the Covid pandemic, these devices have been pivotal in helping to maintain learning outside of the classroom. Trouble is, not every school has the budget to hand out free laptops, especially a state school.

As Dennis Moore states, when it comes to test scores, private and state schools are like: ‘apples and oranges. Public schools have to take everyone, but private schools can be selective’.

So is this the reason for the growing grade gap?

Your domestic environment, social background, or access to better technology do not fully explain exam performance. Rather, private schools usually take those students that they think will do well at academics. After all, one would much rather have a fresh apple than a bruised one.


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