A-level results: Top grades fall but remain above pre-pandemic levels

Hundreds of thousands of teenagers received their A-level grades today in a year when exam regulators in England aimed to return to pre-pandemic grading

School leavers across the country have received their A-level, BTEC and T-level results to help them progress on to university, work or training.

Hundreds of thousands of students across the country received their A-level results in a year when ministers and the exams regulator in England aimed to return to pre-pandemic grading.

More than a quarter (27.2%) of UK A-level entries were awarded an A or A* grade, down by 9.2 percentage points on last year when 36.4% achieved the top grades.

However, this was still higher than in 2019 – the last year that summer exams were taken before the pandemic – when 25.4% of entries were awarded A or A* grades, figures from Joint Council for Qualifications (JCQ) show.

The overall pass rate – the proportion of entries graded A* to E – has fallen to 97.3% this year, which is lower than 2022 (98.4%) and the pre-pandemic year of 2019 (97.6%).

The A*-E pass rate is at its lowest level since 2008 when it stood at 97.2%

It comes after Covid-19 led to an increase in top grades in 2020 and 2021, with results based on teacher assessments instead of exams.

The total number of students accepted on to UK degree courses has dropped 2.6% compared to last year, with 414,940 taking up places so far, according to Ucas.

This year there has been a slight dip in the number of students getting a place at their first choice university, Ucas chief executive Clare Marchant said.

Credit: PA

A total of 414,940 applicants have gained a place at university or college – down 2.6% on the same point last year, according to data published by the university admissions service.

For 18-year-olds in the UK, 230,600 applicants have been accepted – down 3.1% on last year.

Nearly one in 10 (9%) have not been placed at their first or insurance choice and are now in clearing, Ucas said, compared with 7% last year and 12% in 2019.

Students face more competition for university places this year due to a growth in 18-year-olds in the population and international demand, it has been suggested.

Ms Marchant said: "For anyone who may not have got the results they were hoping for, or for those applicants who want to change their mind, there is plenty of choice in clearing with nearly 29,000 courses and 8,000 apprenticeships currently available."

This cohort of students have 'definitely had a tough time and they have definitely had to show their resilience,' the education secretary said

Education Secretary Gillian Keegan told broadcasters the cohort of students receiving their results today "have definitely had a tough time" due to disruption throughout the pandemic and during strikes.

She praised students' resilience and determination in light of today's results.

Earlier this morning, Keegan told students they are unlikely to be asked for the results by employers in ten years’ time.

“They won’t ask you anything about your A-level grades in ten years’ time," she told Sky News.

“They will ask you about other things you have done since then: what you have done in the work place, what you did at university?

“And then, after a period of time, they don’t even ask you what you did at university.

“It is really all about what you do and what you can demonstrate and the skills that you learn in the workplace.”

Keegan stands by her earlier remark that students will not be asked about their exam results 10 years' down the line

Asked if her she feels her comment may be insensitive to those worried about their exam results today, she said "not at all".

"Obviously A-levels are really important part of the journey that they're on and the destination that they are going to get to now," she said.

She said an employer had previously highlighted the point that employers will not look at A-level results when people are later on in life ahead of her appearance on Sky.

"It is an important step to get to your next destination, but when you're a couple of destinations further on there will be other things that they will look at," she said.

Shadow Education Secretary Bridget Phillipson condemned Keegan's remarks, calling them "rude and dismissive".

"This is a nerve-wracking day for young people who have worked incredibly hard. The last thing they need is a secretary of state offering comments like that," the Labour MP said.

Keegan's comments were 'incredibly rude and dismissive', the shadow education secretary said

Boys have pulled ahead of girls at the top grade this year after female entries were in front for the last three years, with A* grades at 9.1% for the former compared with 8.8% for the latter.

Girls continued to outperform boys at A* and A but the gender gap has narrowed again this year.

A total of 3,820 students in England alone scored three A*grades, according to separate figures from exams regulator Ofqual.

This is down from 8,570 last year, but up from 2,785 in 2019.

Many A-level students in Wales and Northern Ireland were given advance information about topics to expect in their exam papers this summer but students in England were not given the same support.

Ofqual said it built protection into the grading process in England this year to recognise the disruption that students have faced, which should have enabled a student to get the grade they would have received before the pandemic even if the quality of their work is a little bit weaker due to disruption.

In Wales, results were midway between those awarded in 2022 – the first year students sat exams following the pandemic – and 2019. Some 34% of students in Wales achieved an A-grade, down from 40.9% last year and up from 26.5% in 2019.

In Northern Ireland, results are expected to return to pre-pandemic levels next year. A-grades were awarded to 37.5% of students in Northern Ireland this year, down from 44% last year but similarly to Wales, up from 29.4% in 2019.

The cohort of students who are receiving their A-level results did not sit GCSE exams and were awarded teacher-assessed grades amid the pandemic.

Exam invigilator preparing an A-level exam. Credit: PA

Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), said: “The proportion of students achieving the top A-level grades has fallen sharply this year, not as a result of underperformance, but because the grading system has been adjusted in the wake of the pandemic so that the distribution of grades in England is similar to 2019.

“This adjustment is a return to normality after the pandemic which necessitated the use of different approaches to grading.

“Whatever the rationale, however, it will feel like a bruising experience for many students, as well as schools and colleges which will have seen a sharp dip in top grades compared to the past three years.

“It is important to remember that these students also suffered the disruption of the pandemic, and this will have impacted particularly on those from disadvantaged backgrounds.”

He added: “We would urge students who are disappointed by their grades not to panic but to talk to their teachers about the options available to them and we wish all the young people receiving their results today every success for the future.”

Credit: PA

Margaret Farragher, chief executive of the JCQ, said: “This year’s results recognise the fantastic achievements of students across the country. They have worked incredibly hard throughout the pandemic period to achieve these well-earned grades.

“The 2023 results show that students are well equipped to continue their studies or move into apprenticeships or employment. ”

Clearing is available to students who do not meet the conditions of their offer on A-level results day, as well as those who did not receive any offers.

Students who have changed their mind about what or where they wish to study, and also those who have applied outside the normal application window, can also use the process.

Students in England have faced some level of disruption to their schooling due to Covid-19, as well as a series of teacher strikes since February this year.

Carl Cullinane, director of research and policy at the Sutton Trust social mobility charity, warned that the return to pre-pandemic grading for this year’s A-levels “doesn’t bode well for disadvantaged students.”

He said: “Disadvantaged young people were impacted most by school closures and have faced further disruption through the cost-of-living crisis."

T-level results have also been received by thousands of students in England on Thursday, and youngsters across the country will be awarded their level 3 vocational and technical qualification (VTQ) exam results.

Provisional government figures show 3,448 students received their T-level results today.

T-levels, two-year courses equivalent to about three A-levels, were brought in in 2020. T-level students spend 20% of their time on an industry placement.

In Scotland, the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) has taken a sensitive approach to grading and modified course assessments this year.

Figures released by the SQA last week showed the pass rate for exams in Scotland is down from last year, but it remains above 2019 levels.

How did your region do?

Here are the percentages of A-level entries awarded the top grades (A*/A) by nation and region, with the equivalent figures for both 2022 and the pre-pandemic year of 2019:

  • North-east England 22.0% (2022: 30.8%; 2019: 23.0%)

  • North-west England 24.1% (2022: 34.4%; 2019: 23.5%)

  • Yorkshire & the Humber 23.0% (2022: 32.4%; 2019: 23.2%)

  • West Midlands 22.9% (2022: 32.3%; 2019: 22.0%)

  • East Midlands 22.3% (2022: 31.4%; 2019: 21.0%)

  • Eastern England 26.6% (2022: 36.1%; 2019: 25.6%)

  • South-west England 26.3% (2022: 36.0%; 2019: 25.8%)

  • South-east England 30.3% (2022: 39.5%; 2019: 28.3%)

  • London 30.0% (2022: 39.0%; 2019: 26.9%)

  • England 26.5% (2022: 35.9%; 2019: 25.2%)

  • Wales 34.0% (2022: 40.9%; 2019: 26.5%)

  • Northern Ireland 37.5% (2022: 44.0%; 2019: 29.4%)

  • All 27.2% (2022: 36.4%; 2019: 25.4%)

Here is the A-level pass rate (entries awarded A*-E grades) by nation and region:

  • North-east England 97.6% (2022: 98.6%; 2019: 98.3%)

  • North-west England 97.4% (2022: 98.7%; 2019: 97.9%)

  • Yorkshire & the Humber 97.2% (2022: 98.4%; 2019: 97.8%)

  • West Midlands 96.8% (2022: 98.2% 2019: 97.1%)

  • East Midlands 96.9% (2022: 98.4%; 2019: 97.4%)

  • Eastern England 97.3% (2022: 98.4%; 2019: 97.6%)

  • South-west England 97.4% (2022: 98.5%; 2019: 97.7%)

  • South-east England 97.5% (2022: 98.6%; 2019: 97.8%)

  • London 96.9% (2022: 98.2%; 2019: 96.8%)

  • England 97.2% (2022: 98.4%; 2019: 97.5%)

  • Wales 97.5% (2022: 98.0%; 2019: 97.6%)

  • Northern Ireland 98.8% (2022: 99.1%; 2019: 98.4%)

  • All 97.3% (2022: 98.4%; 2019: 97.6%)

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