Wed 22 September 2021

While more pupils across the education system achieved the top grades than pre-pandemic, the A-level attainment gap between state and private school is prompting concern about social mobility and inequality

The number of privately-educated teenagers achieving the top grades in their A-levels this year is almost double that of children educated in comprehensives and double that of students in sixth form colleges. 

The growing gap between independent and state schools is a “real cause of concern”, according to social mobility charity The Sutton Trust

Data shared by The Sutton Trust on Twitter reveals that while 70% of privately-educated children achieved a Grade A or above in their A-levels, only 39% of comprehensive school students did the same. 

Nearly half (42%) of academy-educated children achieved Grade A or above, and 35% of students at sixth form colleges got an A or A* – representing the biggest gap between state and private. 

Students across the board achieved higher results than in 2019 when 44% of privately-educated pupils got Grade A or above compared with 20% of comprehensive school students. The 2019 results for academies and sixth form colleges were 24% and 22% respectively. 

The jump in attainment is due to the change in how students were assessed during the second year of the pandemic. While in 2019, assessment was exam-based, this year teachers determined grades using mock exams, coursework, essays and in-class tests.  

A Yawning Gap

Schools have faced major challenges during the pandemic, with classrooms forced to close their doors for the first three months of 2021 in order to stop the spread of the Coronavirus during the deadly second wave. 

The closures prompted concerns that children living in deprived areas and homes would miss out – nearly two million pupils started the January lockdown without a laptop to carry out online learning. 

The disparities in remote learning would not have been considered in the new style of assessment.

Analysis from The Sutton Trust published before the second lockdown found pupils at private schools were more than twice as likely as their state-educated peers to access online lessons every day. There was also a significant gap between the number of young people from working-class households taking part in online learning every day (16%) compared to their middle-class peers (30%). 

While 44% of pupils in middle-class families were reported to spend more than four hours a day learning, this was true for only 33% in working-class families. Private schools and schools in affluent areas were also more likely to have online learning set-ups than those in disadvantaged areas. 

The Sutton Trust research also found that in most deprived schools, 32% of teachers were getting less than a quarter of the work they set returned, compared to just 13% of teachers in the most affluent schools, and only 7% in private schools. This suggests the digital divide had a significant impact on the poorest children’s ability to complete their schoolwork effectively, compared to their wealthier peers. 

The gap in A-level attainment would suggest the fears expressed in January were not unfounded. 

“Since March 2020, our research has consistently shown how much harder state schools – particularly those in less affluent areas – have been hit by the pandemic,” explained founder and Chair of The Sutton Trust Sir Peter Lampl. “The pandemic has compounded existing inequalities and today’s results are a reflection of that. We’re seeing growing gaps between independent and state schools at the top grades”.


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In positive news, across the board more students achieved the top grades and the number of students being accepted to university is higher than ever before. 

However, the data shared by The Sutton Trust following the A-level result announcement reveals that areas that already had high rates of participation in higher education saw the most gains. In areas where fewer people tend to go onto university, there is less of an increase. The entry gap has increased from 24 to 28 percentage points. 

“While it’s encouraging to see more students from less affluent areas going to university this year, it’s of real concern that the gap between those from less affluent areas and those from well-off areas has grown,” said Sir Lampl. “Given that disrupted learning has affected lower-income youngsters more, we urge universities to give additional consideration to disadvantaged students.”


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