Carnegie Education

Mind the widening gap: A-level results, schooling and the north south divide

The pandemic has had a major impact upon all our children’s learning. Over the last 18 months school leaders, teachers, support staff and parents have responded to significant challenges as they have unfolded.


Schools rapidly shifted from face-to-face to online learning, accepted further responsibilities for vulnerable children through engagement with homes, and provided some of the essentials such as food parcels for families to help them and other support through lockdowns. One could argue the pandemic has exposed the real role of state schools over the recent past; they do much broader more than teach children. Despite this changing picture, our young people have come through with improved A-level results despite their course time being disrupted.  

Last year Whitehall officials invented a process that threw A-level results into confusion. This led to the only option being to trust teacher-based assessments. The reform of schooling launched by Michael Gove in 2010 saw the introduction of exams becoming once again central to A-level assessment. 

These form the basis for post sixth form opportunities and serve to populate the neoliberal landscape of contemporary state schooling with data by which parents can select the best school or college for their children. While GCSE and A-level results are critical to individual’s future opportunities, they also feed the machine of competition and the notion that teachers in the state system could not be trusted with this vital role. 

The last full examinations held in 2019 the top measure of A and A* comprised of 25% of the year cohort. However, this measure rose in 2020 to 38% and this year 44%. 

One could argue that teacher assessments resulted in grade inflation within the state sector when compared to formal examinations. But when one compares the last two years of A-level performance in the private sector, we can see how between 2020 and 2021 a larger rise took place from 61% to 70%. 

Hence greater inflation in the private sector, or is this to be explained by better home schooling, additional out of school tutoring, easier access to high quality technology or that private schools were better placed than state schools to respond to the shift to on line learning. 

Whatever we argue our young people have suffered the impact of this pandemic should not be perceived as less accomplished when compared to those subject to neoconservative traditions set within the state school examination system in 2010. 

Moving to the government’s key priority of ‘levelling up’ which has become coupled with the discovery of deep inequalities that seemed to have emerged as a result of the pandemic. While private schools taking these measures appear to have improved their A/A*results to 71%, a 9% increase set against the state sector 6%, the gap has widened between these sectors. 

In real terms of those taking A-levels the probabilities of achieving the top classification appears to be more than 50% if a pupil has access to private education. This growing gap could reflect the decade of austerity and the reduced funding for sixth forms in real terms. 

Moving to state schooling and regional results and the levelling up agenda using the same indicator our region, Yorkshire and the Humber, the rate has improved for 35% in 2020 to 41.7 % whereas as the national rate is 44%, hence we remain below national average. Further to this London and the South East stands at a mean of 47.4%, significantly higher. We could therefore draw the conclusion that the educational divide between the north and south is widening.

These results may be interpreted in many ways. The real story behind these results is that they matter to the future prospects of every young person. Schooling is a complex issue with many variants that determine our children’s future. 

We need to review our present schooling system by looking beyond the statistical issues related to achievement as the pandemic. 

Covid-19 has illustrated that schools do much more than teach children, they are centres serving their community and provide a place for children to develop socially and emotionally as well as intellectually. Perhaps if ministers and their officials considered what schools actually do, and consider what they could do if better resourced, this may lead to closing the gap between the north and south and the private and state sectors.


Dr Doug Martin

Course Director / Carnegie School Of Education

Following a successful career as a practitioner, service manager and strategic leader in the care and education sectors, Dr Doug Martin became a policy writer and moved into higher education. Through his research, he investigates the complex issues impacting on vulnerable children, young people and families. He is a school governor and has been director, chair and advisor to a variety of voluntary sector organisations. He is also a member of the Leeds School Forum, taking an active role in helping to shape schooling in the city.

More from the blog

All blogs