A-level results are no disaster – but the system is not out of the woods

18 Aug 2022, 12:45

The vast majority of young people who wanted to attend university now can – after that there are some tricky questions, writes Tom Richmond

Although A-level results day is always a special moment across thousands of schools and colleges, we should remember that today is particularly special for the young people who took their exams this year.

After their GCSEs were abandoned in 2020 due to COVID, many of this year’s students have faced the ever-daunting challenge of high stakes examinations for the first time.

That is a noteworthy achievement, even before their grades were awarded.

After two years of eye-watering grade inflation, especially in the proportion of top grades awarded in 2020 and 2021, the exam regulator Ofqual decided in advance that 2022 was going to be a halfway house.

This year results would be graded somewhere between the entirely unrepresentative grades in 2021 and the grades achieved in the last set of normal exams back in 2019.

In general, this is precisely what we have seen today.

The proportion of A or A* grades fell from 44 per cent in 2021 to 36 per cent this year, with another step down needed in 2023 to get back to something like the 25 per cent achieved in 2019.

Similarly, the proportion of A* grades fell from 19 per cent in 2021 to 15 per cent this year, although a big drop is required next summer to return to eight per cent of grades being an A* as in 2019.

Inevitably, the sharp rise in top grades at private schools attracted a lot of attention last year, with their proportion of A/A*s leaping from 45 per cent in 2019 to 70 per cent in 2021.

In 2022, this process has inevitably gone into reverse as the grade distribution across all schools and colleges begins to return to normality, with 58 per cent of private school pupils achieving A/A*s this year.

FE colleges have also experienced a noticeable drop in A/A*s, from 29 per cent last year to 17 per cent in 2022.

That said, this drop means there is only a small adjustment needed in 2023 to bring them back into line with the 13 per cent of A/A*s achieved in 2019.

Other institutions such as grammar schools and private schools have much further to fall in 2023.

So has this year been fair on students, with fewer top grades available than last year?

I would point to the absurdity of last year’s grades for any ‘fairness’ concerns rather than Ofqual’s reasonably sensible solution

I would point to the absurdity of last year’s grades as being the source of any ‘fairness’ concerns rather than Ofqual’s reasonably sensible solution implemented this year.

On that basis we should be comfortable with the grades achieved in 2022 – not least because this year’s students did not suffer the extent of school and colleges closures experienced by the previous two exam cohorts.

There were inevitably question marks about how universities would react this summer to falling top grades after last year’s spike.

From the data released by UCAS, it appears that any such fears were misplaced.

Some 374,580 applicants have been accepted onto their first-choice university degree, which is admittedly 20,000 fewer than the 395,770 in 2020.

But it is nothing like the scale of disaster that some commentators were predicting.

Similarly, the number of students accepted onto either their first or second choice degree is the second highest on record at 425,830 – only two per cent lower than 2021.

We can therefore say with some confidence that despite Ofqual bringing down the proportion of top grades this year relative to 2021, the vast majority of young people who wanted to attend university will be able to do so.

Needless to say, our A-level system is not out of the woods yet as we emerge from the pandemic.

If Ofqual do indeed bring the proportion of top grades back to 2019 levels in the summer of 2023, they will have to cut the proportion of A* grades in half in one go.

As ever, do not underestimate the politics of grade inflation – both as grades go up, and as grades go down.

But that’s for another day. For now, let’s just enjoy the achievements of so many young people.

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