A-level grades down from pandemic highs but still above 2019 levels
A-level grades for students across the UK have dropped from pandemic highs, but remain above 2019 levels, with girls still outperforming boys and geography pushing English literature out of the top 10 most popular subjects.
Hundreds of thousands of pupils across England, Wales and Northern Ireland, who sat exams this summer for the first time since the coronavirus outbreak, received their results on Thursday.
University admissions have also fallen on last year, but are the second highest on record, according to Ucas figures.
Grades had been expected to drop back from 2021 levels – when pupils were assessed by their teachers – as part of a transition year which saw marks aiming to reflect a midway point between last year and 2019.
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 the pre-pandemic year of 2019.
Entries receiving the top grades of A* and A are down 8.4 points from 44.8% last year to 36.4% – but up 11.0 points on 25.4% in 2019.
The figure for the highest grade, A*, is down year-on-year from 19.1% to 14.6%, but remains higher than in 2019 when it stood at 7.7%.
And 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.
The JCQ said there were 848,910 A-level entries in total, up year-on-year by 2.9%, compared with an increase of 2.4% in the 18-year-old population.
Students have been widely praised for their achievements, having faced disruption to their schooling throughout the pandemic.
Education Secretary James Cleverly paid tribute to the “resilience and hard work” shown by students who “experienced unprecedented disruption over the last couple of years”.
Girls continued to outperform boys overall, with A* to E grades at 98.7% for the former, compared with 98.1% for the latter – but the lead enjoyed by girls in the top grades has narrowed.
The proportion of girls who got A or above was 2.2 percentage points higher than boys this year, compared with a 4.8 percentage points difference last year.
The number of A-level students in England who took three A-levels and achieved all A* grades is nearly three times what it was in 2019, rising to 8,570 compared with 2,785.
The most popular subject this year was maths, while psychology remained the second most popular.
English literature saw the biggest drop in candidates for a single subject, falling out of the top 10 most popular subjects for the first time, to be replaced by geography.
The first results of new T-levels – broadly equivalent to three A-levels and offering on-the-job experience – were also awarded on Thursday, with 92.2% of the 1,029 pupils in England getting a pass
Kath Thomas, interim chief executive of the JCQ, said the results “represent a huge milestone” in the country’s recovery from the pandemic, while Dr Jo Saxton, chief regulator of England’s exams regulator Ofqual said this year’s grades “represent a staging post” on the journey “back to normality”.
An analysis of the data by the Sutton Trust social mobility charity suggested 58% of grades at independent schools were A or above, compared with 35% at academy schools and 32% at Sixth Form Colleges.
The gap between independent schools and state schools and colleges has narrowed since last year but remains higher than 2019, the organisation said.
It warned that regional gaps are growing, with London still seeing the biggest gains in grades at A or above.
In terms of university entries, the charity said students from areas with historically better participation in higher education has fallen more this year than for those from areas with historically low participation.
They said this is the biggest narrowing of the gap over the last decade, but that it remains larger than pre-pandemic – this year it is 25.6 percentage points, compared to 23 percentage points in 2019.
Acceptances at higher tariff – more selective – universities are down this year, but the Sutton Trust said the share of overall acceptances going to these institutions remains higher than 2019, at 36% compared to 33%.
Sir Peter Lampl, founder and chairman of the charity and chairman of the Education Endowment Foundation, welcomed a “slight narrowing of the gap between the most and least advantaged” but said there is work to be done in closing it.
He said: “It’s great to see that many disadvantaged youngsters are gaining a place at university, and that there is a slight narrowing of the gap between the most and least advantaged.
“Universities have rightly prioritised widening participation in spite of an extremely competitive year. However, the gap is still wider than it was pre-pandemic, highlighting that there is more work to be done.”
Pupils in Scotland received the results of their Higher examinations last week, with a similar trend in that the pass rate was down on last year but above pre-pandemic levels from 2019.
Exam board AQA confirmed some teachers had issues trying to access results breakdowns online, but said no students had been affected in getting their grades.
A number of people tweeted the board’s official account with some saying the situation was “a joke” and “not good enough”.
A spokesman said: “Our Centre Services system is working, but we’re aware that some teachers have been having issues.
“There are a number of possible reasons and solutions, and we’re working hard to support anyone who’s having problems. None of this has affected the delivery of results to students earlier today.”
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