'They're robust, they're good': Boris Johnson defends England A-level results as thousands of students degraded

  • Video report by ITV News Correspondent Juliet Bremner

Prime Minister Boris Johnson has defended the A-level results today despite thousands of teenagers being downgraded, as this year's summer exams were cancelled due to the coronavirus pandemic.

He said: "The exam results we've got today are robust, they're good, they're dependable for employers".

He adds: "Pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds, more than ever before are now able to go to university, are going to university this year as a result of the grades they've got today."

When asked if he has confidence in Education Secretary Gavin Williamson, he said: "Of course I do, but I think this is a robust system and it's one that is dependable for employers."

"It's very important that for years to come people should be able to look at these grades and think these are robust, these are dependable."

Exam boards downgraded nearly 40% of school leavers' grades in England, according to data from Ofqual – which amounts to around 280,000 entries being adjusted down.

The figures come despite record-high results and an increase in the number of students accepted onto university courses in the UK.

Teachers were told to submit the grades they thought each student would have received if they had sat the papers, alongside a rank order of students, after exams were cancelled amid the pandemic.

Exam boards then moderated these grades to ensure this year's results were not significantly higher than previous years and the value of students' grades were not undermined.

Lilly Keeley Watts told ITV News she was "absolutely gutted" she hasn't got her place at Durham University.

She said: "This morning I achieved A*, A, C and I haven't got my offer at Durham for Natural Sciences and I've called up this morning and I have obviously haven't got in."

"To be honest I'm just absolutely gutted because I know our school has been hit by science subjects, that's why I got a C in Biology, I deserve more than a C in Biology."

She added: "I don't want to be big-headed but I know I would have done better, I'm so

grateful and I'm so proud that i managed to get an A* and and A but because of the C...I haven't been able to get into my chosen uni." 

"It's just heartbreaking to seeing my friends upset because of previous results or because of where you live or what school you go to, it just shouldn't determine it."

Meanwhile Vice-Principle of Southmoor Academy in Sunderland, Sammy Wright, told ITV News that 45% of the student body in his school have had their grades downgraded.

When asked about the results, Mr Wright said: "I have hugely mixed feelings, I mean in one sense, I'm delighted for all the students who have got to their destinations, we've got some fantastic destinations people going all over the country."

"But I am absolutely gutted for the fact there are many many students who have been downgraded in ways that do not match their ability."

"In our student body, 45% have been downgraded mostly by one grade, some by two, 51% are as they are and 3% are upgraded," he added.

The stats follow last minute changes to the grading system brought in by the government late on Tuesday, offering students in England a “safety net” of being able to use mock exam results as the basis for an appeal, if they are higher than the calculated grade.

The 11th hour change came hours after Scotland’s Education Secretary announced that moderated calculated grades would be scrapped following an outcry after more than 124,000 results were downgraded.

(PA Graphics) Credit: PA Graphics

  • How have exam results been downgraded?

Exam boards downgraded 39.1% of pupils' grades in England - equating to nearly 2 in five students having their results hit.

Despite this the top grades reached record highs. The proportion of A-level entries awarded an A grade or higher rose to 27.9% - an all-time high - figures for England, Wales and Northern Ireland show.

Overall the proportion of entries in England, Wales and Northern Ireland awarded the top A* grade this year surged to 9% – the highest proportion since the top grade was first introduced in 2010.

In England, the majority of downgrades were by a single grade - a total of 35.6%.

Fewer were brought down by two grades (3.3%) while 0.2% came down by three grades, figures from Ofqual show.

The figures, published by the Joint Council for Qualifications, cover A-level entries from students in England, Wales and Northern Ireland where around 300,000 students are receiving their results.

Students bump elbows at Peter Symonds College, Winchester, as they receive their A-Level results. Credit: PA

Despite the downgrading of results, more students have been accepted on to UK degree courses this year.

A total of 358,860 pupils have taken up places so far - an increase of 2.9% on the same point last year - according to data published by the university admissions service, Ucas.

A-level students struggled to access the Ucas website on Thursday morning, however, after it crashed amid "technical issues".

Pupils complained about not being able to access the "track" section of the website - leaving thousands unable to find out whether they got the grades needed to head to university.

Responding to frustrated students on Twitter, the site said: "Ucas Track is now running as usual, we’re really sorry it was running slowly. We’re here to help if you need us."

Education Secretary Gavin Williamson said on Thursday's results day that he had asked universities to "show the maximum amount of flexibility".

Mr Williamson has been forced to defend the 11th hour changes to the results system amid criticism from unions.

Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), said teachers are likely to face questions from “disgruntled” students over appeals on Thursday which they will struggle to answer due to the last-minute announcement and lack of detail about how the process will work.

But Mr Williamson told ITV News: "There is nothing that I won't do to make sure we have the maximum amount of fairness for students at this time."

However Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer has branded the result's day in England as a "complete disaster".

Mr Starmer said: "Something has obviously gone horribly wrong [...] this has fundamentally failed, the government needs to rethink this."

"They shouldn't rule anything out - including the approach that was forced on the Scottish government to go back to the assessments last week - but they need an answer. Individual appeals, waive the appeal fee. But this has been a disaster," Sir Keir added.

Shadow education secretary Kate Green has called on ministers to act to end the "injustice" suffered by A-level students in England who had had their results downgraded.

"It is a huge injustice that pupils will see their results downgraded just because of their postcode," she said.

Lauren Lopez (left) and Brenda Irabor, both students at Ark Globe Academy in Brixton, London, receive their A-Level results. Credit: PA
  • What is the breakdown of the UK's university acceptances ?

Initial Ucas figures show 34,310 international students from outside the EU have been accepted - up 2%.

Acceptances from students within the EU have fallen by 15.2%, with 22,430 accepted this year.

The number of school leavers accepting places on undergraduate courses in the UK has risen by 1.6% compared to last year.

While the number of applicants accepted onto their first choice of course increased too, up 2.7% on the same point in 2019.

Students at Norwich School collect their A-level results on Thursday morning. Credit: PA

Despite a drop in the population of their age group across the UK, the number 18-year-olds taking up places has risen to 30.2%.

So far, 4% of placed UK students are currently planning to defer starting their course - the same proportion as 2019 - despite Covid-19 disruptions.