What do 2021's GCE results mean for our subject and our learners?

Across all nations we first wish to applaud every learner, and every teacher for the examination results achieved this year (2021) – achieved despite changes to policies, lockdowns, and U-turns. This year’s candidates have shown incredible resilience and determination – characteristics that exams do not measure.

But, in the results that we have reported on today, we can see huge discrepancies which reflect widening inequities in education. We will be asking policy makers to reflect on lessons learned and to identify ways to remove the systematic educational inequities which have been exposed. 


Art and design GCE entries

The percentage overall share of all GCE exam entries has fallen from 5.3% (2020) to 5.1% (this year). This difference (of 0.2 %) equates to 1649 individual art and design candidates.

This is the lowest cumulative percentage of total art and design candidates in 17 years –  5.1% was last recorded in 2004. 

Levels of participation in all other arts subjects (Music, Drama, Music, Performing & Expressive arts) have shown stability this year.

Overall, this year there has been an increase in GCE candidates across all subjects – an increase of 5.06% (from 784959 in 2020 to 824718). As noted above this has not been reflected in own subject’s level of participation.

Given that other arts subjects have remained stable this year, the Society is deeply concerned with this year’s percentage fall. The message from chair of The Russell Group, Dame Nancy Rothwell, that all foundation subjects, including art and design, have value has not yet reached learners this year.


Gender Gap and participation

According to data published by JCQ there has been a slight increase to the gender participation gap: In 2021 74.3% of GCE art and design candidates were female and 25.6% were male. In 2020, 74.7% of candidates were female and 25.3 were male. The participation has increased, albeit marginally.


Gender Gap and achievement

In 2019, 21.7% of male completions achieved an A grade and above. In the same year 29.8% of female completions achieved these grades (an 8.1% difference)

In 2020, 32.8% of male completions achieved an A grade and above. In the same year 44.2% of female completions achieved these grades(an 11.4% difference)

In 2021, 37.7% of male completions achieved an A grade and above. In the same year 49.6% of female completions achieved these grades (an 11.9% difference)

Between 2019 and 2021, boys’ A grades and above have increased by 16.0%; whilst girls’ A grades and above have increased by 19.8%. The uplift during the pandemics benefitting girls’ grades more than boys'.


Grade uplift 

Ofqual is showing that the numbers of candidates awarded A grade and above have increased the gender gap. According to Ofqual, Overall, for all subjects the percentage of A and A* grades awarded (boys and girls combined) increased from 25.2% in 2019 to 44.8% in 2021 (the difference is 19.6%).

In 2019 (pre-pandemic) 27.7% (male/female combined) achieved A grade and above. This year (2021) 46.5% achieved these grades (the difference is 18.8%). The pandemic uplift for art and design is less than for all subjects combined.

Independent schools got more top grades than ever. 70.1 % of A-level grades at independent schools were at A or above, compared just 44 % in 2019 (a 26.1% increase). This compares to 44.3% for all subjects in all schools this year and 25.2% in 2019 (a 19.1% increase). The increase in the independent sector for A/A* grades is much bigger than in all other educational settings.(source FFT Datalab)


Regional changes

According to data published by Ofqual there have been regional variations in uplifts that contrast by region.

North East

In 2019, 23% achieved an A grade and above. In 2021 39.2% achieved the same grade. An increase of 16.2%


In 2019, 21% achieved an A grade and above. In 2021 41.3% achieved the same grade. An increase of 20.3%


In 2019, 26.9% achieved an A grade and above. In 2021 47.9% achieved the same grade. An increase of 21%



In Scotland the Education spokesperson Oliver Mundell said: "Compared to last year, grades are down across the board. The attainment gap is up.

According to the BBC: ‘The percentage of pupils achieving A to C grades in their Highers fell from 89.3% in 2020 to 87.3% in 2021. This number is above the 75% pass rate from 2019.

90.2% of Advanced Higher candidates achieved a pass, down from 93.1% in 2020. National 5 completions dropped from 89% to 85.8%.

The percentage of students who got an A grade in Higher and Advanced Higher courses increased by around 20 percentage points from pre-pandemic levels.

A total of 47.6% of Higher candidates achieved an A grade, compared to 40% in 2020 and 28.3% in 2019.

In Advanced Higher courses, 51% of pupils achieved an A grade, up from 46.3% in 2020 and 31.8% in 2019. In National 5s, 42.3% achieved an A grade in 2020 and 46.7% this year, up from 35.1% in 2019.


What do today's results mean for our subject and our learners?

NSEAD rejects the term ‘grade inflation.’The achievements of students and their teachers are extraordinary and are reflected in the ‘pandemic uplift’ that we have seen over two years.Teachers have worked with enormous dedication to ensure that students receive full recognition of their achievements and support to progress to the next stage of their lives and education.

However, these results pose some urgent questions for our subject today:

What does the widening gap in achievement between male and female students tell us about the impact of the pandemic on art and design education? If girls were able to achieve ever higher grades through the pandemic, why not boys?

Why is there such regional difference in the increase in grades? As a result of different experiences of the pandemic, students have had less time, less access, and fewer resources, simply because of where they live, or the kind of school they attend. There are clear regional inequities that must be addressed.

Why have independent and selective schools seen the biggest increase in A/A* grades? Ofqual suggested last year that the disproportionate uplift was because these schools have higher numbers of students with higher prior attainment. What does this tell us about the impact of the pandemic on those students with less advantage, and what must we do to support them going forward?

The Ofqual data has highlighted how the pandemic has furthered the gender attainment gap and regional variations. We also call on the government to publish data that further interrogates socio economic variations that will shed light and reflect on the digital poverty that many families experienced. 

This cohort of students have applied themselves with courage and determination, through two years of turbulence and disruption, supported and steadied by their dedicated teachers. We applaud our members, and art and design teachers everywhere for their work this year, which has been nothing short of heroic. In the face of 18 months of adversity, the determination and resilience of educators and learners, and in turn our examination results awarded this week must be applauded. Across all four nations we are extremely proud of our community.



Note: Unless otherwise stated all data used has been from: analytics.ofqual.gov.uk/apps/A level/Outcomes