A-level students face drop in grades in 2023 as system returns to pre-Covid conditions

Exam room - Gareth Fuller/PA
Exam room - Gareth Fuller/PA

Tens of thousands fewer top A-level and GCSE grades are set to be awarded next year after the Government confirmed it would largely return to pre-pandemic exam conditions.

Exam grade boundaries will return to similar levels seen in 2019, the exam regulator Ofqual announced, as it continues to clamp down on grade inflation seen since the start of the pandemic.

The decision means that the proportion of A and A* grades awarded at A level, which reached a record 44.8 per cent in 202, and fell to 36.4 per cent this year, should be closer to the 25.5 per cent seen in 2019.

For GCSEs, the proportion of top grades is expected to fall close to the 20.8 per cent seen in 2019, down from a record 28.9 per cent in 2021 and 26.3 per cent in 2022.

Grade inflation hit record high

Grade inflation hit a record high when grades were teacher-assessed in 2020 and 2021.

When exams returned in the last academic year, grades were set at a “midway” point between 2019 and 2021 to reflect the disruption to pupils’ learning caused by pandemic restrictions.

Students were also given advance information in some exams and formulae and equations sheets for some tests.

The regulator said there would be “protections” for this year’s cohort if their exam performance was “a little lower” than before the pandemic because of Covid-19 disruption.

Senior examiners will use the grades achieved by previous cohorts of pupils, along with previous attainment data, to inform their decisions about where to set grade boundaries.

Dr Jo Saxton, chief regulator at Ofqual, said this means that “broadly speaking”, a “typical student who would have achieved an A grade in their A level geography before the pandemic will be just as likely to get an A in summer 2023, even if their performance is a little weaker than it would have been before the pandemic.”

The regulator has launched a consultation on whether formulae and equation sheets should remain in GCSE mathematics, physics and combined science.

Kit Malthouse, the Education Secretary, said: “Students working towards their qualifications next year expect fairness in exams and grading arrangements, which is why we are transitioning back to pre-pandemic normality.”

Prof Alan Smithers, director of the Centre for Education and Employment, said: "All adjustments are difficult and painful to the people who are affected, but the greater good makes it necessary.

“With so many top grades being awarded [since the start of the pandemic], really the value of holding a top grade has been reduced.

"Before the pandemic, grades were an accurate indicator of students’ capacity to benefit from their higher education. I welcome this announcement. It may be politically difficult, but it's absolutely the right thing to do because in the decade prior to the pandemic the grades had been stabilised, so they were a good reference point."

Experienced disruption

Sarah Hannafin, senior policy adviser for the National Association of Head Teachers, said: "Next year's exam cohort have experienced disruption to their learning over the past three years. For those taking A-levels, these will be the first formal exams they sit. It is right that this is recognised and steps taken to ensure the cohort is not disadvantaged as a result of their experiences.

"The protection offered by the approach to grading next summer should create fairness for students at cohort level, although concerns will remain for individuals who have faced more disruption than others.

"It is also vital that higher education, training providers and employers understand the approach to grading next summer to ensure students are not disadvantaged compared with their peers from previous years.”

Julie McCulloch, director of policy at the Association of School and College Leaders, said: “We welcome the decisions made in respect of grading and exam adaptations in 2023.

"Returning grading standards to pre-pandemic standards with a safety net to ensure that grades do not fall lower is a sensible balance between stepping back to normality while ensuring that students affected by Covid disruption are not detrimentally affected.

"The pandemic caused a situation in which exams were not held for two years and were replaced with a different system of assessment that understandably resulted in different grades from normal. It would not be right for grading standards caused by highly unusual circumstances to become baked into the system so we do need to return to normality.”