Hundreds of thousands fewer top GCSE grades were handed out to teenagers this year following efforts to bring results back down to pre-pandemic levels.
Official figures also show disparities in results across regions reveal that a significant proportion of pupils face resitting key English and maths exams after failing to score a “standard” pass.
Many of the students who received their GCSE results on Thursday were in Year 8 when schools closed as a result of coronavirus.
Around 203,000 fewer top GCSE grades were awarded in England, Wales and Northern Ireland than last year.
But 142,000 more top grades were awarded this summer than in 2019.
It comes after Covid-19 led to an increase in top grades in 2020 and 2021, with results based on teacher assessments instead of exams.
More than a fifth (22.0%) of UK GCSE entries were awarded the top grades – at least a 7 or an A grade – this year, down by 4.3 percentage points on last year when 26.3% of entries achieved the top grades.
But this was still higher than in 2019 when 20.8% of entries were awarded the top grades.
Ministers faced calls to address regional disparities after the gap in top GCSE grades between London and the North East widened.
Overall, 28.4% of GCSE entries in London were awarded a grade 7 or above, compared with 17.6% in the North East – a gap of 10.8 percentage points. Last year, the gap was 10.2 percentage points.
The proportion of UK GCSE entries getting at least a 4 or a C grade – considered a “standard pass” – dropped from 73.2% in 2022 to 68.2% this year, but it was higher than in 2019 (67.3%).
In England, many students who do not secure at least a grade 4 in English and/or maths at GCSE are required to retake the subjects during post-16 education.
A PA news agency analysis of figures by Ofqual shows that it is likely that almost 22,000 more 16-year-olds in England did not reach this standard in maths this year compared to last year.
In English, it is likely that over 38,000 more 16-year-olds in England this summer did not secure a grade 4 or above compared to 2022.
Headteachers’ unions have called on the Government to reform the system to ensure many students are not stuck in a “demoralising” cycle of retakes.
But speaking as students received their GCSE results on Thursday, Education Secretary Gillian Keegan said people “do a lot better over their lifetime” if they secure maths and English qualifications.
The gap in top grades between private schools and comprehensive schools in England remained large (27.5 percentage points), but it narrowed on last year.
Some 46.6% of GCSE entries at private schools in England were awarded grades 7 or above this year, down from 53.1% in 2022. In comprehensive schools, the figure was 19.1%, down from 23.2% last year.
In England, exams regulator Ofqual said this year’s GCSE results would be lower than last year and they would be similar to those in 2019.
Ofqual built protection into the grading process to ensure a pupil received the grade they would have received before the pandemic even if their quality of work was a little weaker this year.
In Wales and Northern Ireland, results are expected to return to pre-pandemic levels next year.
In Wales, 21.7% of entries were awarded an A grade or above, compared to 18.4% in 2019, and in Northern Ireland 34.5% of entries were awarded the top grades, compared to 30.5%.
In England, 21.6% of entries were awarded a grade 7 or above, compared to 20.7% in 2019.
According to figures from Ofqual, the number of 16-year-old students in England who received a 9 – the highest grade under the numerical grading system – in all their subjects nearly halved from last year.
Some 1,160 16-year-olds in England taking at least seven GCSEs achieved a grade 9 in all their subjects, compared with 2,193 last year and 837 in 2019.
While traditional A*-G grades are used in Northern Ireland and Wales, in England these have been replaced with a 9-1 system, where 9 is the highest.
A 4 is broadly equivalent to a C grade, and a 7 is broadly equivalent to an A.
Many students in Wales and Northern Ireland were given advance information about topics to expect in their exam papers this summer, but pupils in England were not given the same support.
In England this year, pupils were given formulae and equation sheets in GCSE mathematics, physics, and combined science exams in acknowledgement of pandemic disruption to learning.
Jo Saxton, chief regulator of Ofqual, said the decision on whether to continue to offer exam aids to GCSE pupils in England in some subjects next summer would fall with the Department for Education (DfE).
She told the PA news agency: “They know they need to confirm their position about next year. We’ve agreed that’s very much in DfE’s space because it’s about curriculum. Whatever decision they make, we enable it to happen.”
Dr Saxton added: “In terms of grading, this has been the second step in the two-step plan to get back to normal. So as far as Ofqual is concerned, we’re now back to normal.”
Earlier this month, schools minister Nick Gibb said there was an “expectation” that exam aids would not be offered to GCSE students next year.
Speaking on GCSE results day on Thursday, Mr Gibb acknowledged that progress on closing the attainment gap for disadvantaged pupils had “been undone” during the pandemic.
He told BBC Breakfast: “We did achieve a 9% closing of that gap for secondary and we closed the gap by 13% for primary, but that has been undone, as you say, by Covid, and now we need to get back to normality.
“We’ve got the recovery programme happening in our schools right now. And then we need to get back to the reform programme to make sure that we can continue to close that gap.”
Shadow education secretary Bridget Phillipson said: “The schools minister has confirmed that Conservative promises to level up education are dead and buried.”
In Scotland, the national results for the National 5 qualifications were published earlier in the month and showed that the pass rate was 78.8% – down from 80.8% last year, but up from 78.2% in 2019.