Northern Ireland A-levels: What to expect from results and the help available

Students in Northern Ireland are to receive their exam results.

Thousands of students across Northern Ireland are to receive their A-level exam results on Thursday.

In Northern Ireland and Wales, exam regulators have said they do not plan to return to pre-pandemic grading until 2024.

This means exams will be still be marked in a different way to reflect teaching time lost due to the coronavirus pandemic. Therefore results should remain at the same level or even reach higher levels.

However, some students in Norther Ireland sit exams set by English boards.

Exams regulator Ofqual has said this year’s national results will be lower than last year, but they are expected to be similar to 2019 – the last year before the pandemic.

– When are exam results this year?

A-level some technical qualification results are out on August 17, while GCSE results will be released on August 24.

Thousands of students will also receive results for vocational technical qualifications (VTQs) this month.

Results for VTQs at Level 3 taken alongside or instead of A-levels, such as BTECs, are due to be released to students on or before August 17. Results for many Level 2 VTQs are expected on or before August 24.

– What can we expect?

NI exam regulator The Council for the Curriculum, Examinations and Assessment (CCEA) have said they do not plan to return to pre-pandemic grading until 2024.

For English board exams, the aim to return to pre-pandemic grading comes after Covid-19 led to an increase in top GCSE and A-level grades in 2020 and 2021, with results based on teacher assessments instead of exams.

But schools minister Nick Gibb has said “additional protection” is in place this year where grade boundaries will be altered if senior examiners find national evidence of a drop in standards compared with 2019.

He said: “A typical student in 2019 – given the same level of ability, the same level of diligence – the likelihood is that same student would get the same grades in 2023 as they would have done in 2019.”

– Was anything done to support students taking exams?

In Northern Ireland, many students were given advance information about what to expect in their exam papers this summer to help them prepare.

– Will students face tougher competition for university places?

Clare Marchant, chief executive of Ucas, expects it to be “more competitive” to secure a place on a degree course this year due to the growth in 18-year-olds in the UK population and rising demand from international students.

She said that any vacancies on selective courses are likely to “go faster” in clearing so students need to be “quick off the mark” on A-level results day,

Professor Sir Steve West, former president of Universities UK (UUK), has suggested that students could face tougher competition for places on some courses at selective universities this summer due to infrastructure pressures following major expansion during the Covid-19 years.

– What can students do if they are not happy with their results and they do not get accepted to their first choice university?

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 clearing process through Ucas.

Applicants will be able to add a clearing choice from 1pm on A-level results day (Thursday August 17).

Education expert Professor Alan Smithers has predicted that the expected drop in top A-level grades this year will lead to “a lot of disappointment” among students and a possible “huge increase” in appeals.

- Helpline for NI students

A helpline for those receiving their exams results in Northern Ireland will open on Thursday at 8am.

It’ll then open on week days from 9am to 5pm until Wednesday 30 August.

Anyone with queries regarding CCEA’s results can call 028 9026 1260, email, or log onto the CCEA website to access the Results Day 2023 Frequently Asked Questions section. 

The helpline will be operated by CCEA and offer advice and guidance for students receiving their summer 2023 examination results including: GCE, GCSE, Certificate of Personal Effectiveness (CoPE), Occupational Studies, Online Language Assessment (OLA) and Vocational Qualifications.

‘’Results day can be a very exciting time, but we also understand that it can be an anxious time for students, parents and teachers,” CCEA’s Michael Crossan, Business Manager, Assessment and Examinations said.

“CCEA provides a helpline with experienced staff who can answer queries and provide information on the full range of post results services we offer.

“Access to this kind of information means students are better prepared for making important decisions about their future.

“On behalf of CCEA, I extend our best wishes to everyone awaiting their results and I wish you well as you embark on the next stage of your education or career!”

Meanwhile, a headteachers’ union leader has urged the Government to talk to employers about changes to grading standards following the pandemic to ensure students are not “disadvantaged” in job applications.

Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), said the return to pre-Covid grading levels for English board set exams will feel like a “bitter pill” for many students receiving their A-level and vocational and technical qualification (VTQ) results as they faced pandemic disruption.

Mr Barton added that students in disadvantaged circumstances were “adversely affected” during the pandemic years and he called for “everything possible” to be done to support these young people.

Mr Barton said: “It is imperative that the Government engages with employer associations and provides advice and guidance for employers to use over the changes which have taken place to grading standards between 2020 and 2023.

“This is vital to ensure that employers understand how different cohorts of students have been graded during and after the Covid pandemic and guard against students being disadvantaged in applications for jobs both now and in the future.”

He added: “While universities are steeped in the mechanics of different qualification systems and will adjust accordingly, this is not necessarily the case with employers who will have differing levels of knowledge about these changes.

“The Government must work with employer associations to disseminate clear information upon which recruiters can easily draw in assessing candidates.”

The cohort of students who are currently awaiting their A-level results did not take GCSE exams and were awarded results determined by their teachers in 2021 – which was a record year for top grades.

Mr Barton said: “The changes to grading standards were driven by the unique circumstances of the pandemic, and the glide back to 2019 standards is part of a return to normality.

“But this will feel like a bitter pill to many in this year’s cohort as they also suffered disruption during the pandemic and those in disadvantaged circumstances were adversely affected in particular. It is essential that everything possible is done to support these young people.”

A Department for Education (DfE) spokeswoman said: “We have engaged extensively with stakeholders since the pathway back to pre-pandemic grades was decided two years ago.

“It’s vital that grading returns to normal to make sure qualifications maintain their value and credibility.

“Ofqual has built protection into the grading process this year to recognise the disruption that students have faced, meaning they will be just as likely to achieve a particular grade this year as they would have been before the pandemic.

“We are making almost £5 billion available to help pupils to catch up including over £1.5 billion for the National Tutoring Programme and 16-19 Tuition Fund, which have supported millions of students in need of extra support.”

An Ofqual spokeswoman said: “Back in September 2021, Ofqual announced a two-year plan that would see grading move back to similar levels to 2019, even if the quality of students’ work was a little weaker due to the disruption students have faced.

“This means that a student who would have achieved, say a B grade in A-level Geography before the pandemic, is just as likely to achieve a B this year.

“Ofqual has engaged with employers’ associations to let them know in advance that grades would be lower this year and similar to the pre-pandemic levels that they are familiar with.

“It’s important that we get back to normal so that grades set young people up for college, university or employment in the best possible way, and help them to make the right choices about their next steps, whether that’s further study or moving into the world of work.”

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