When Oscar dos Santos opened his GCSE results at Birmingham’s City academy, he ran whooping through the school hall. “I got a nine!” he screamed. “I got a nine!”
It had been a long journey for the 16-year-old, who spent the best part of two academic years studying at home during the Covid lockdowns of 2020 and 2021, and was now part of the first cohort to sit GCSE exams in two years.
“There has been a lot of disruptions. During Covid all my target grades dropped,” he said. “When I came back in year 10 I was in a very poor state, both in my mentality and my academic aspirations. I didn’t have much hope.”
Now he has secured the grades he needs to study performing arts at Birmingham Ormiston academy, with a mixture of grades 5-9. “I got a nine in history,” he said. “I was never good at maths but I got a five, I scraped that out the bin. I’m really happy. I put in a lot of work.”
There were lots of delighted screams in the school hall on Thursday, but also a few tears from students who hadn’t got the grades they hoped for.
The government said it planned to tackle grade inflation, and accordingly the proportion of top grades in England fell from last year and the overall pass rate was also down.
“We’ve been told that all year, that it’s very likely [grades] will be higher than 2019, but lower than the previous two years. And we were ready for that,” said Rebecca Bakewell, headteacher of the inner-city secondary school, which is part of the Core Education Trust. “But we’re still incredibly happy with the grades that our young people have got.”
Most students said they felt extra stress being the first pupils to sit exams since before Covid, and the first not to receive teacher-assessed grades instead.
“I’ll be real, there was a lot of anxiety with it. We did mocks but it was our first time getting back into the exam structure since 2019 so it was hard to settle into. But we did it,” said Jamil Charles, who scored a mixture of fours and fives and was off to study engineering, business and computer science at a local college.
“I definitely felt more pressure, and everyone was saying the results weren’t going to be as good as last year, so I was worried,” said Shelby Yates, who achieved eight grades 8-9. “That’s why I’m so pleased. I did better than I expected.”
Not everyone felt hard done by. Jia Le Chen scored an impressive array of eights and nines, and was hoping to study maths, further maths, physics and computer science at a local grammar school sixth form.
“Although, yes, they didn’t have to do exams last year, but everyone got better results meaning there was more competition,” he said. “If we do the exams this year and the grades go down a bit, it means if I do better, I will stand out more. So I see it as an advantage.”
There was no denying teaching staff have faced a gruelling few years educating pupils during Covid, and there is growing anger over the north-south divide, with this year’s results showing growing regional disparities in top grades.
City academy is situated in an area with high levels of deprivation – half of pupils in the school receive free school meals – but Bakewell said staff had worked hard to ensure pupils were not at a disadvantage.
“I’m a headteacher in the inner city and I’m always going to say the government need to do more to support our disadvantaged children, whichever region it may be in,” she said.
“We’ve done an awful lot of work with all of our children around their mental health and resilience. On top of that, all of our children who needed it have had one-to-one work in core subjects. We had graduate coaches come in to support, we had bespoke intervention sessions, in and around the school day, we did lots of extra things for our young people.”
“I’ve got to applaud the teachers. Well done to them because this wouldn’t happened without them,” said Charles, who was particularly happy to pass maths, which he struggled in.
“I’m so happy. Maths was the one I was scared about but I did it, I’ve come a long way. My family are going to be over the moon.”