A-level results: How have grades been worked out?

Students getting their exam results. Credit: PA

Thousands of students in England, Wales and, Northern Ireland will receive their A-level results on Thursday after exams were cancelled amid the Covid-19 pandemic.

In Scotland, the exam results fiasco forced the Scottish government into a U-turn and the government announced exam results will be upgraded after an outcry from students.

The question of how to grade each A-level student without exams has been a hard one to solve and was based on teacher predictions, which has been moderated by exams boards.

After Scotland's U-turn, the UK government announced late on Tuesday that students in England will have the “safety net” of being able to use mock exam results as the basis for an appeal.

John Swinney apologised to pupils as he announced the results U-turn. Credit: PA

Here we look at some of the questions students and parents might be asking about this year’s results.

What are the concerns with how the grades have been calculated?

After this summer’s exams were cancelled, teachers were told to submit the grades they thought each student would have received if they had sat the papers.

The predictions were sent to the exam boards alongside a rank order of which students they believed would do best within each grade for each subject.

Exam boards have moderated these school-assessed grades to ensure this year’s results are not significantly higher than previous years and the value of students’ grades are not undermined.

As part of the standardisation process, exam boards have also taken into account historical performance data to determine the proportion of students who achieved each grade in previous years.

This is what Scotland attempted to do, but abandoned its system of grade moderation after anger from students.

After this, the pass rate increased by 10.7% to 88.9%, as well as the Advanced Higher pass rate rising to 93.1% – a rise of 13.7%.

Pupils had taken to the streets of Glasgow after their results had been downgraded using a controversial moderation system. Credit: PA

Pupils in England have been given the chance to use their mock grades as their final grade, but with huge variation among how students approach them, it might not be an effective option.

With all the last-minute changes and U-turns by the English and Scottish governments it could result in a wave of appeals from schools.

The UCAS deadline – for applicants to meet their academic offer conditions – is September 7, which leaves exam boards less than four weeks to issue outcomes of appeals.

Can students know the original grades submitted by their school or college?

England’s exams regulator has warned that teachers will be investigated for potential malpractice if they tell students or parents predicted grades, or rank orders, ahead of results day.

But on results day, schools and colleges will be allowed to share their predictions with students.

Exam results Credit: PA

What should students do if they are unhappy with their final grades?

In England, pupils can ask their school or college to check whether it made an administrative error when submitting their grade – and they can ask them to submit an appeal to the exam board if it did.

But individual students will not be able to directly challenge their grades to the exam boards. They will be dependent on schools and colleges to appeal against results on their behalf.

Ofqual has said results can be appealed against if the school or college can show grades are lower than expected because previous cohorts are not “representative” of this year’s students.

What's happening in the four nations of the UK?

Education is devolved across the four countries of the United Kingdom, with different systems for dealing with the cancelled exams implemented in all of them.


The Scottish government abandoned its system of grade moderation and gave pupils their predicted grades after it turned out students from lower-income areas had had their grades lowered the most.

Scotland released their grades first and had to deal with the outcry that followed, likely giving the other nations a chance to learn from their mistakes.

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon was also forced to apologise for the moderation fiasco, after it emerged students from deprived backgrounds saw their results disproportionately downgraded.


In England GCSE and A-level students in England have been assured of a so-called “triple lock” approach, essentially picking their best result.

It means students could accept their calculated grade, appeal to receive valid mock results, or sit their exams when schools resume properly in the autumn.

The measure was announced by Education secretary Gavin Williamson on Tuesday following the problems in Scotland.

Some students have said they are not confident in the sudden changes to grading so soon before results are announced.

ITV News Correspondent Chloe Keedy discussing the changes to England's exam results system


In Wales, the government has insisted they would not have the same problems with their results.

Housing and local government minister Julie James said Wales uses different modelling to Scotland and that nearly half of pupils’ final mark was based on AS-levels completed last year.

There had been concerns from students that such a model would mean pupils at schools which had historically not performed as well would be unfairly penalised.

But Ms James said: “We are obviously very keen that our learners are given the accolade they need for the hard work that they’ve done but also that they get the grades that they deserve, and that those grades are robust and will take them forward into their lives with confidence.

“We’re not expecting what happened in Scotland to happen here.”

Northern Ireland

Results will be based on teachers’ predictions and statistical modelling.

Teachers were asked to predict the grades they thought pupils would have achieved had exams gone ahead, based on coursework, the result of mock exams, and homework.

Credit: PA

Schools were also requested to rank pupils in each subject.

But Northern Ireland’s exams body, the Council for the Curriculum, Examinations and Assessment, said students will have a broader scope to appeal their A-level and GCSE grades.

Will it be harder to get onto university courses this year?

Clare Marchant, head of UCAS, has said it is a “good year” for prospective students in Britain who want to attend university because institutions will be competing to fill their courses at a time of uncertainty with less competition from overseas.

Credit: PA

In light of the decision by the Scottish government to drop their method of grade moderation, the UK's largest teaching union said it would be harder for English students to secure a place at university.

Dr Mary Bousted, joint general secretary of the National Education Union, said: “We now have two qualification systems required for entry into UK universities, operating on completely different criteria with wildly different pass rates."

Ministers have urged universities to be “flexible” and take into account a range of evidence when choosing which students to admit on A-level results day.