The number of top grades at A-level has fallen sharply this year after a return to examinations, with warnings about large regional variations and a “stark” divide between the state sector and private schools, where pupils were almost twice as likely to get an A or A*.
Results awarded in England, Wales and Northern Ireland revealed top grades down by 8.4 percentage points on last year’s record results, while A*s alone decreased by 4.5 points, in line with government plans to bring results gradually back to pre-pandemic levels.
The attainment gap between the more affluent London and south-east regions and the north-east is growing, however. While the gap between the south and the north-east was between 4 and 5 percentage points in 2019, it now stands at more than 8 percentage points.
Chris Zarraga, the director of Schools North East, said: “We are incredibly proud of the students and school staff in our region and all they have achieved despite unprecedented circumstances. However, the results also reflect the disproportionate effect the pandemic has had on our region.”
The shadow education secretary, Bridget Phillipson, said: “Students in the north-east are no less capable but, after 12 years of Conservative governments, they’re seeing their results go backwards compared to their peers across the south of England.”
In England just under 36% of A-level entries gained A and A* grades this year, compared with 44.3% last year. The number of high-flyers who got three A*s at A-level has also gone down, from 12,865 last year to 8,570.
England’s exam regulator, Ofqual, has urged students not to compare their results with 2021 when grades were awarded based on teacher assessments, insisting that a comparison with 2019 when exams were last sat is more appropriate.
On that measure, results overall are higher than pre-pandemic levels, with the proportion of As and A*s up from 25.4% in 2019 to 36.4%, and in the three years since exams were last sat the share of A*s has gone up by almost seven percentage points, from 7.7% to 14.6%.
Meanwhile, university admissions have fallen on last year after one of the most competitive admissions cycles in recent memory, but, at 425,830 so far, are still the second highest on record, according to the university admissions service Ucas.
The number of students without a university place increased by a third, the highest in a decade, while about 24,000 are estimated to have missed out on their first choice.
The Ucas chief executive, Clare Marchant, said: “My advice is to take advantage of the wide range of choices on offer, which includes over 27,000 courses in clearing, along with a range of apprenticeship opportunities.”
University admissions teams reported high levels of interest in clearing, a process that matches unplaced students with unfilled courses.
Ella Kirkbride, the head of admissions at the University of Hull, said calls had risen by 286% on last year, with many of the students having received better results than expected. “They are relieved that they have not been faced with the kind of disappointing results that they were really concerned about as a result of all the speculation and uncertainty. In fact they have achieved Bs and Cs – and are very well prepared to go through the clearing process,” she said.
Some students complained about unpredictability in results. Will, 18, who attended a state grammar in Bradford, achieved grades AAB and missed out on his firm offer at Newcastle but was accepted at Royal Holloway, University of London, to study psychology.
“Many friends who had excelled throughout the whole two years and who had revised a massive amount to account for poor Covid teaching ended up dropping three to four grades from what they were predicted or what they achieved in mock exams,” he said.
Dr Jo Saxton, the chief regulator of Ofqual, said this year’s results were pitched broadly midway between 2021 and 2019 and marked a staging post on the return to pre-pandemic grade levels next summer.
“Today’s results are higher than those of 2019, and – as we have always said – lower than in 2021, when there was a different method of assessment.
“I felt strongly that it would not have been right to go straight back to pre-pandemic grading in one go but accept that we do need to continue to take steps back to normality.”
Female students fared worse in grade deflation, though still outperformed their male counterparts. Whereas 44.3% of students in England achieved an A grade in 2021, that fell back to 35.9% this year, an 8.4 percentage point drop. But female students’ grades fell by 9.5 percentage points compared with 7 points among males.
Teacher-assessed grades, which replaced exams across the UK last year, resulted in a huge boost in grades across the board, but disproportionately benefited those at independent schools, where the proportion of top grades rose 9 percentage points to 70%, compared with 6 percentage points overall.
This year they continued to have the highest proportion of top grades, with 58% achieving an A* or A, 12.4 percentage points lower than in 2021 but still above pre-pandemic levels, and the gap between secondary comprehensives and private, fee-paying schools remains large.
There was a 27 percentage point difference in students graded A or above between independent schools and secondary comprehensives this year, slightly smaller than in 2021, when the difference between both schools reached 31 percentage points.
The Joint Council for Qualifications (JCQ) said the overall pass rate – the proportion of entries graded A* to E – fell by 1.1 percentage points from 99.5% in 2021 to 98.4% this year. But this is up by 0.8 points from 97.6% in 2019. The proportion of entries graded A* to C dropped from 88.5% in 2021 to 82.6% this year, though it is up from 75.9% in 2019.
Maths remains the most popular A-level and the number of students taking psychology and business studies jumped by more than 10% this year. Just 53,323 students took one of the three English subjects available to them, down from 75,000 in 2017.
In Scotland, results published last week showed a similar pattern as pass rates for Scottish pupils fell significantly with the return of exams for the first time since 2019. The overall pass rate for Highers, heavily used for students aiming for university, fell from 89.3% in 2020 to 78.9%.
As well as A-levels, approximately 200,000 students received BTec results. This year has also been a landmark year with 1,000 students receiving results for the first time for the new T-level technical qualifications, for which they began studying in September 2020.
Kath Thomas, the interim chief executive officer of the JCQ, said: “These students are the first to have taken formal summer exams in three years, so we should all celebrate this achievement.”