The proportion of As and A*s awarded at A-level has tumbled this year after a return to examinations, bringing UK students down to earth with a bump following record grades for two years running.
Results awarded in England, Wales and Northern Ireland revealed top grades down by 8.4 percentage points on last year’s record results, while A*s alone have decreased by 4.5 points, in line with government plans to bring results gradually back to pre-pandemic levels.
In England just under 36% of A-level entries gained A and A* grades this year, compared with 44.3% of entries last year. The number of high-fliers who got three A*s at A-level has also gone down, from 12,865 last year to 8,570.
England’s exam regulator, Ofqual, has urged students not to compare their results with 2021 when grades were awarded based on teacher assessments, insisting that a comparison with 2019 when exams were last sat is more appropriate.
On that measure results overall are higher than pre-pandemic levels, with the proportion of As and A*s up from 25.4% in 2019 to 36.4%, and in the three years since exams were last sat, the share of A*s has gone up by almost seven percentage points, up from 7.7% to 14.6%.
Dr Jo Saxton, chief regulator of Ofqual, said this year’s results were pitched broadly midway between 2021 and 2019 and marked a staging post on the return to pre-pandemic grade levels next summer.
“The class of 2022 can be so proud of what they have achieved. Today’s results are higher than those of 2019, and – as we have always said – lower than in 2021, when there was a different method of assessment.
“I felt strongly that it would not have been right to go straight back to pre-pandemic grading in one go but accept that we do need to continue to take steps back to normality.”
Compared with last year, however, both male and female students are entitled to feel disappointed, with top grades dropping significantly. Female students have fared worse in terms of grade deflation, though the still outperform their male counterparts. Whereas 44.3% of English students achieved an A grade in 2021, that fell back to 35.9% this year, an 8.4 percentage point drop. But females’ grades fell more, down by 9.5 percentage points compared with seven point among males.
Teacher-assessed grades, which replaced exams across the UK last year resulted in a huge boost in grades across the board, but disproportionately benefited those at independent schools, where the proportion of top grades rose nine percentage points to 70%, compared with six percentage points elsewhere.
This year they continue to have the highest proportion of top grades with 58% achieving an A* or A – 12.4 percentage points lower than in 2021 but still above pre-pandemic levels and the gap between secondary comprehensives and private, fee-paying schools, remains large.
There was a 27-percentage point difference in students graded A or above between independent schools and secondary comprehensive this year, slightly smaller than in 2021, when the difference between both schools reached 31 percentage points.
The Joint Council for Qualifications (JCQ) said the overall pass rate – the proportion of entries graded A* to E – fell by 1.1 percentage points from 99.5% in 2021 to 98.4% this year. But this is up by 0.8 points from 97.6% in the pre-pandemic year of 2019. The proportion of entries graded A* to C dropped from 88.5% in 2021 to 82.6% this year, though it is up from 75.9% in 2019.
Maths remains the most popular A-level while the number of students taking psychology and business studies jumped by more than 10% this year. English entries continue to plummet, however. Just 53,323 students took one of the three English subjects available to them ( English Language, English Literature or the combined English Language and Literature A-levels), down from 75,000 in 2017.
This year’s drop in grades was anticipated after the government outlined plans to rein in the grade inflation that accumulated over the past two years, favouring a gradual approach to pre-pandemic grade levels. A number of adaptations were made to exams to recognise the disruption students have faced, including advance information on some content.
In Scotland, results published last week showed a similar pattern as pass rates for Scottish pupils fell significantly with the return of exams for the first time since 2019. The overall pass rate for Highers, heavily used for students aiming for university, fell from 89.3% in 2020 to 78.9%.
As well as A-levels, approximately 200,000 students received BTec results. This year has also been a landmark year with 1,000 students receiving results for the first time for the new T-level technical qualifications, for which they began studying in September 2020.
Kath Thomas, the interim chief executive officer of Joint Council for Qualifications, said: “Congratulations to all the students receiving their results today. Not only is it the culmination of two years of hard work, but these students are the first to have taken formal summer exams in three years, so we should all celebrate this achievement.
“As intended, these results are higher than the last set of summer exams in 2019, but lower than last year’s teacher-assessed grades. This reflects the special arrangements that were put in place to support students, schools and colleges through another challenging year due to Covid.”