A-Level results: Grades hit record high after exams cancelled for second year in a row

Paul Brand reports on how the rise in A-level grades has also increased the inequalities between who gets the highest marks and who doesn't

The proportion of A-level entries awarded an A grade or higher has surged to an all-time high after exams were cancelled for the second year in a row due to Covid-19. Hundreds of thousands of students have been given grades determined by teachers, rather than exams, with pupils only assessed on what they have been taught during the pandemic. Girls performed better than boys at the top grades, and female maths students overtook their male counterparts for the first time in the number of A* grades achieved, figures for England, Wales and Northern Ireland show.

In Scotland, school results were consistently lower than last year, but have shown a sharp rise since 2019. Vocational BTec results are also out on Tuesday.

Students are being urged not to use law firms to contest their results. Credit: PA

Ucas figures released on Tuesday showed a record number of students in England, Wales and Northern Ireland have been accepted on to UK degree courses this year.

In total, 435,430 students have had places confirmed on an undergraduate course in the UK, up 5% on the same point last year, according to data published by the university admissions service.

A record 395,770 students have been accepted on their first choice full-time undergraduate course in the UK, up 8% from 365,500 in 2020.

A record year for A grade results: What else the data shows

In total, more than two in five (44.8%) of UK entries were awarded an A or A* grade this summer – up by 6.3 percentage points on last year when 38.5% achieved the top grades.

Overall, the proportion of entries awarded the top A* grade this year has surged to 19.1% – the highest proportion since the top grade was first introduced in 2010.

The figures, published by the Joint Council for Qualifications (JCQ), cover A-level entries from students in England, Wales and Northern Ireland.

According to an analysis by Ofqual, some 6.9% of students in England were awarded three A*s this year – compared with 4.3% in 2020 and 1.6% in 2019.

Despite grades improving in general, there was a stark difference in grades received by private school and state school students.

Labour MP Peter Kyle encouraged state school teachers to advocate for pupils whose "talents aren't recognised" by the results. He said staff should call higher education institutions to vouch for the students.

"Go to bat for them," he said. "Because those young people need it and they deserve it."

Paul Brand explains how the government may tackle the grade inflation for next year's A-Level students

There are concerns that the record-breaking results have caused "grade inflation", a situation in which top marks now have little value. Education Secretary Gavin Williamson insisted that the results are "meaningful" and a "just reward" for pupils who have studied through the pandemic.

"It's been an exceptional year, they've been dealing with exceptional challenges and I think it's a just reward for all their hard work, all their commitment," he said.

“It’s fantastic to see a record number of disadvantaged students going to university.

Education Secretary Gavin Williamson said the results are a "just reward"

"While there has been an increase in the number of top grades awarded, young people and their families can be confident grades carry the same weight as any other year and will allow them to progress to the next stage of education or work."

Last summer, the fiasco around grading led to thousands of A-level students having their results downgraded from school estimates by a controversial algorithm before Ofqual announced a U-turn.

This year the algorithm was scrapped.

There have been suggestions that results hitting a record high means it will be more difficult for top universities to differentiate between applicants.

Labour MP Peter Kyle encouraged state school teachers to advocate for students whose "talents aren't recognised" by the results

Youngsters who missed out on the grades needed to meet their university offers are likely to face greater competition for a place at leading institutions as there could be fewer selective courses on offer in clearing.

Unions representing school leaders and teachers have urged parents and students against using law firms to challenge their results – and appealing against grades just “for the sake of appealing”.

This year, teachers in England submitted their decisions on pupils’ grades after drawing on a range of evidence, including mock exams, coursework, and in-class assessments using questions by exam boards.

Dr Mary Bousted, joint general secretary of the National Education Union (NEU) said: “Parents should be really warned not to hire lawyers to make the case for a different grade because it will impress no one, it won’t impress the exam boards.”

She added: “Dressing up an appeal in legal language is not going to bolster that appeal, or make it more likely to succeed. So if you don’t want to waste your money, don’t do that.”

Paul Whiteman, general secretary of school leaders’ union NAHT, said: “There is certainly a worry that we are going to face more appeals than normal, but we just don’t know yet.

“Although the appeal system is there to bring a further level of confidence, spurious appeals or hopeful appeals will probably be a waste of time because the system that’s been brought in is a robust system for this year.”

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He added: “My only appeal to students and students’ parents is that a lot of work has gone into this assessment, you should be able to rely upon the assessment so simply putting an appeal in for the sake of appealing in the hope that your grade might move would be the wrong thing to do.”

The Department for Education has said all A-level grades have been checked by schools as part of a quality assurance process – and one in five schools had a sample of their grades checked by exam boards.

Nick Hillman, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute (Hepi), said it could be more difficult to get on to a top course this year if grades are missed.

Education Secretary Gavin Williamson said "despite pandemic disruption" teachers and staff have ensured students received their grades. Credit: PA

He said: “It could be harder to get in than usual if you fall a grade or two behind your offer and if it is a competitive course.

“My advice would be to act swiftly if you need to find a place somewhere else.”

Last week, the head of the admissions service warned that clearing is likely to be “more competitive” for students seeking places at selective universities this year due to uncertainty on teacher-assessed grades.

Angry students protested against the exam results and called for Gavin Williamson's resignation. Credit: PA

Clare Marchant, Ucas’s chief executive, urged students receiving their grades to make a decision “in a matter of days” rather than waiting weeks.

But she added: “On Tuesday, I am expecting to wake up and have record numbers with their first choice.”