A-level pupils should be prepared for “disappointment” when results are announced this week, the higher education watchdog has warned.
The Office for Students predicted a significant surge in applicants being rejected from their preferred universities after exam boards were ordered to crack down on spiralling grade inflation.
Even the brightest pupils who normally “wouldn’t dream” of missing the terms of their university offer may struggle this year because results will fall below grades predicted by teachers, the watchdog told The Telegraph.
Students receiving their A-level results on Thursday have never sat public exams before, as the year they were due to take their GCSEs was 2020 when all exams were cancelled owing to the pandemic, meaning it has been harder for teachers to make accurate predictions.
According to one analysis, around 40,000 young people are expected to miss out on their preferred places.
The fallout from exams this year will be the latest blow to a generation of youngsters that has seen their education severely disrupted by Covid, which included two prolonged periods of school closures.
John Blake, the director for fair access and participation at the Office for Students, said it was “only fair” to warn A-Level students early to avoid a “shock” on results’ day.
“Ofqual wants to bring the grading down but if you compare that to – certainly what I’ve seen – some schools’ predicted grades, they have accepted that in general that results will go down but not necessarily for them,” Mr Blake told The Telegraph.
“That could lead to a lot of students feeling quite disappointed on the day that their grades don’t match up to the grades that they were expecting. And I think it’s important for people to prepare themselves a bit for that and to acknowledge that.”
Record numbers rejected from top institutions
With students facing the most competitive admissions round in decades, research found that record numbers of British students have been rejected from the UK’s most selective institutions, including Oxford and Cambridge, in favour of their overseas peers who pay far higher tuition fees.
Four out of ten British candidates who applied to top universities this summer were rejected, the biggest rate ever recorded.
For the past two years students have been handed predicted grades, resulting in rampant grade inflation and record numbers of youngsters awarded top grades.
Last summer 44.8 per cent of students were handed an A* or A grade in their A-levels. This compared to 38.5 per cent in 2020 when a controversial algorithm was scrapped in favour of predicted grades.
Prior to the pandemic roughly a quarter of students were awarded top grades each year, most recently 25.2 per cent in 2019.
This year exam boards have been ordered by Ofqual, the exam watchdog, to crack down on inflation by ensuring the number of top grades are halfway between those of 2021 and 2019.
Mr Blake said that the approach has failed to prevent teachers giving their pupils’ generous predicted grades which are likely to be far higher than their actual results. He said this would lead to more students ending up in clearing after missing their offers, including the brightest pupils applying for highly competitive courses like medicine and dentistry.
However figures released on Sunday showed a plunge in the number of Russell Group courses in clearing, with 2,358 courses available compared to 3,085 at the same time last year.
Mr Blake said: “Whatever happens, I think there will be a lot of volatility and people need to be prepared for that. And I think it’s only fair to say that to students so that it’s not a shock to them.
“That will also include some of the most able [students]. We know that the most selective courses are competitive – they are always competitive – but they will be more so this year.
“There will be students who in a normal year wouldn’t dream that they would have an issue, may well find themselves needing to think through that.”
First time sitting public examinations
Me Blake pointed out that this year’s A-level cohort have never before sat public examinations, since they had their GCSEs cancelled at the start of the pandemic in 2020.
His warning follows an analysis by Prof Alan Smithers, the director of the Centre for Education and Employment, which found that tens of thousands of “painfully disappointed” A-Level students are expected to miss their university offers this year as 80,000 fewer top grades will be awarded.
Demand for places has soared due to an increase in the number of 18-year-olds in the British population as well as more applications from mature students.
Meanwhile, universities have fewer places to offer this year following a bulge in their intake during the pandemic, when they were forced to accept more students than they had planned to.
And at the same time, universities are making an increasing number of offers to overseas students, who pay far higher tuition fees than their British counterparts.
“We know from the clearing figures there are very few of the top courses at the top universities that are available,” Prof Smithers said.
“This is a very competitive year anyway for three other reasons. Universities have been actively recruiting overseas students for the fees they bring in. Then we have an increase in the 18-year-old population and more of them want to go to university.
“And lots of people who were sitting at home during lockdown began to think ‘what do I want to do with my life?’ That seems to have led to a boost in applications from mature students.”