By Orna Herr, Communications Officer (Education) at the British Science Association


This year’s GCSE results are the first since 2019 that have come from exams rather than teacher-assessed grades. There has been a lot of discourse over the last week or so about the grades, and whether they indicate a drop in performance overall. However, the true picture is nowhere nearly that simple. Ultimately, where you live has a big impact on the grades you are likely to receive at GCSE. Ofqual laid out the results over a map of England, showing the regions where students were more or less likely to have attained higher grades. When we cross-referenced this map with data on the levels of income-deprivation in areas across England, there was a sad but predictable correlation. 

The eight counties in England where the highest percentage of students earned 7/A or above in biology, chemistry, physics and maths GCSE were the same for each subject; Berkshire, Buckinghamshire, Cambridgeshire, Greater London, Hertfordshire, Rutland, Surrey and Warwickshire. High scoring in these counties is clearly no fluke, it happens across the board. It is surely no coincidence either that when we looked at income deprivation levels of the cities and towns in these counties, they were some of the lowest in England. 

Wokingham in Berkshire, where the number of students who achieved 7/A or higher in science and maths subjects was around 10% higher than average, has one of lowest percentages of income deprivation in England at 4.4%. Guildford, Surrey is another area which does not suffer much from income deprivation, and students performed better than average across the board there too. The correlation doesn’t stop. In Warwick, Warwickshire, where 7% of the population is income deprived, a figure similar to the City of London, students performed higher than average in all four subjects examined. 

The relationship between income deprivation and grades can be seen at the other end of the spectrum too. Lincolnshire is one of the bottom eight counties on the list for grades 7/A or higher in all three science subjects and maths (the list for each subject varied slightly); in North East Lincolnshire 19% of the population are income deprived. Suffolk also appeared regularly, the county home to Ipswich, where 14.1% of the population are income deprived. 

The regional results for grades 4/C or higher in science and maths subjects, the grade required to apply for higher education, showed similar data; students’ chances of having achieved this grade improved if they lived in an affluent area and declined as income deprivation increased.  

The disadvantage gap persists because it is cyclical. Young people living in income-deprived areas are less likely to achieve high school grades and go to university, reducing their future earning potential. As studies show that ‘children from poorer families do less well academically at school than those from higher income families’, the future offspring of today’s disadvantaged young people may also find themselves achieving lower grades than more affluent peers. And so on.      

The young people taking their exams this year have had their education disrupted in an unprecedented way by the COVID-19 pandemic, which will have undoubtedly impacted results. However, the disadvantage gap is no new phenomenon. In a recent blog of ours, ‘Progress toward education equality has stalled, more needs to be done’, we examined data that have been collected over the previous decade on the persistent disadvantage gap at GCSE level. We quoted the recommendations from a report by the Education Policy Institute, among them that targeted funding at schools in deprived areas would help to remedy this situation, as well as improved teacher training and small group tutoring.  

To avoid more years where exam results and young people’s socio-economic background reflect each other, critical steps need to be taken by the Government to ensure school funding is equitable, children who traditionally don’t perform as well as their peers are given the attention that will allow them to access equal opportunities, and teachers are trained and paid sufficiently to work in deprived areas.  

In the meantime, at the British Science Association we want to support children and young people who are disadvantaged and underrepresented in science, and their teachers, as much as possible to fulfil their potential.  

We have two grants opening in September to provide funding for science activities and projects in schools: 

With the next British Science Week coming up in March 2023, our Kick Start Grants will open later in September 2022, ranging from £150 to £700 for state-funded schools to put on activities and events to celebrate the Week.  

We are also opening a round of the CREST Underrepresented Audiences (URA) Grants this month to fund schools to run CREST Awards, our education programme of student-led science projects for ages 5-19.  

Eligibility criteria for applying for these two kinds of grants can be found here: 

  • British Science Week Kick Start Grants 
  • CREST URA Grants 

Check out a recent case study from a teacher from Northgate High School in Norfolk who received a CREST URA grant to run Bronze CREST Awards with her science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) club. 

We believe the quality and level of education young people receive can have a significant impact on the rest of their lives, and science education is for all young people who should have a right to access it equally, no matter where they come from, or what background they come from. These grants are designed to enhance students’ enjoyment and engagement with science, which is closely linked to attainment.