GCSE Results - 2021, another exceptional year

With the publication of examination results today in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, we see another exceptional year, with GCSE results that are again very different to those seen before the pandemic. Students, their teachers, parents and carers should be congratulated for their incredible efforts during the greatest period of challenge for education ever seen. These results reflect the resilience and determination of our young people and those who support them.

Art and Design entries and comparisons with all subjects

Among 16-year-olds in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, the cumulative percentage of entries for all subjects graded 7/A or above has increased from 27.2% in 2020 to 30.2% this year. 

In art and design, grades 7/A and above, have increased from 29.9% in 2020 to 30.5%. This is the smallest increase in the proportion of top grades for any subject.

At grade 4/C or above, for all subjects, the cumulative percentage of entries has increased from 78.9% in 2020 to 79.1% in 2021.

In art and design, grades 4/C or above were 86.5% in 2020, falling to 84.8% in 2021.

There has been an increase in numbers taking GCSEs (all subjects combined).

The percentage of both male and female candidates combined for art and design entries in England and Northern Ireland has increased from 3.6 to 3.7%. However, in Wales the percentage of students taking art and design has slightly deceased by 0.2%. (see below, source JCQ).

                    2021                                2020       

England     195,578 (3.7)               190,725 (3.7)

N Ireland       3,879 (2.3)                   3,707 (2.3)

Wales             9,424 (2.9)                   9,240 (3.1)

UK               210,091 (3.7)               204,855 (3.6)


Gender and participation

There has been a very slight increase in the percentage of entries for both male and female candidates.

Male candidates in 2020: 2.4% (percentage of total). In 2021 this has risen to 2.5%.

Female candidates in 2020: 4.7%.In 2021 this has risen to 4.8%.


In 2020: 66.1% of candidates were female, and in 2021 this has reduced by 0.4% to 65.7% 

In 2020: 33.9% of candidates were male, and in 2021 this increased by 0.4% to 34.3%. This represents a small but never the less welcome improvement in gender gap. 


Gender and achievement

In 2020: 16.3% of male students achieved 7/A and above; in 2021 this has risen very modestly to 16.4%. An uplift of 0.1%

In 2020: 36.9% of female students achieved 7/A and above; in 2021 this rises to 37.9%. A 1.0% uplift – significantly more than the rise seen in boys' 7/A grades – indicated that there has been a pandemic uplift which has impacted positively on girls' achievement. 

The gender achievement gap in art and design has widened this year. The pandemic has not closed it.


Regional Variations (England only)

Disappointingly the pandemic has only stretched regional variations. In the figures shown below show that between 2019 and 2021 the percentage achieving 7/A and above has risen more in London (by 8.8%) than in the East Midlands (6.8%).

                          2019         2021       Difference in percentage (2019 to 2021)

North East        16.4          24.5        8.1

London             25.7         34.5        8.8

East Midlands  18.3          25.1       6.8


What do these results mean?

Today’s results show, as with A levels, that boys have benefited less from the ‘pandemic uplift' than girls. Indeed, there are real questions for all subjects about how the disruption to learning impacted on boys disproportionately. For Art and Design,  The gender gap in participation and achievement has been of increasing concern to art educators for some time. Today’s results tell us that the pandemic has done nothing to close the achievement gap, but we  have seen a glimmer of hope in the (slight) increase in boys taking GCSE Art and Design. 

Other gaps have widened still further. In England, Ofqual report from their equalities analysis that the attainment gap between pupils eligible for free school meals (FSM) and their peers has grown by 10% of a grade. Also in England, Independent schools have reported larger increases in attainment at the top grades than state schools. Across the UK, there is a disturbing variation in ‘pandemic uplift’ across different regions. For our subject, across the nations we have seen a slight fall in the number of entries in Wales and a continuing variation in the percentage of grades awarded at higher levels. 

We have a picture of continuing inequity, with the quality of education and opportunity far too dependent on factors beyond learners’ control.

Art and Design educators have of course long cherished the benefits of assessment based on robust moderation of teacher's assessment. However, Minister Nick Gibbs’ comments today leave us in no doubt that the UK Government’s ideological attachment to high stakes assessment through terminal examination is not negotiable. The only question he is asking, is how quickly we can return to the status quo of the previous decade. This is not good enough. 

We would like to see the UK Governments and devolved administrations embrace the unique opportunity the pandemic has given for fresh thinking about what education could be. We have seen great strengths in our education communities (our learners and teachers' adaptability, rising to the challenge) as well as systemic weakness (the damaging effects of an inflexible examinations system).

For NSEAD, these results, and all that they represent, tell us that we need to ask bold questions:

  • What if the results of 2020 and 2021 are a truer representation of the talents, achievements and potential of our young people than previous years?
  • What if terminal examinations are not the best way to prepare our learners for each stage of their education and progression into employment? 
  • What if we were to pursue real fairness as our goal for assessment? 
  • What if our policymakers and political leaders could follow the example of our students – to adapt to the changing world, to seize opportunities for learning?


We invite art educators across the UK to join us in calling for an open-minded review of our education system, in pursuit of equity and a level playing field for all.

And finally, and let us say it again: In the last two years, every student and all art, craft and design educators have shown incredible diligence and adaptability. No matter which qualification was taken or which grade was received, your students completed an art, craft and design course in extraordinary times. The lessons learned online or face to face – in or through our subject – will make the world a better place.