A-level top grades fall in UK but remain above pre-pandemic levels
By Eleanor Busby, PA Education Correspondent
The proportion of A-level entries awarded top grades in the UK is down on last year but still remains above pre-pandemic levels, national figures show.
Hundreds of thousands of students across the country received their A-level results on Thursday 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 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.
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%
The figures, published by the Joint Council for Qualifications (JCQ), cover A-level entries from students in England, Wales and Northern Ireland.
The number of applicants accepted on to UK degree courses has fallen this year but it is up on 2019 – the year before the pandemic, Ucas figures show.
Ucas said 79% of 18-year-old applicants from the UK have secured their first choice, which is down from 81% last year but up from 74% in 2019.
In England, exams regulator Ofqual had said this year’s A-level results would be lower than last year and they would be similar to those in 2019 as part of efforts to return to pre-pandemic grading.
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.
In Wales, results are expected to be “broadly midway” between those awarded in 2022 – the first year students sat exams following the pandemic – and 2019.
In Northern Ireland, results are expected to return to pre-pandemic levels next year.
Overall, the proportion of UK entries awarded the top A* grade this year has fallen by 5.7 percentage points to 8.9% compared with 14.6% in 2022, but it is higher than when it stood at 7.7% in 2019.
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.
In a media briefing, Jill Duffy, chief executive of exam board OCR, said there were 73,000 fewer top grades in England, Wales and Northern Ireland than in 2022.
But she added there were 32,000 more top grades this year than in 2019.
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.
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.
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.”
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.”
Pupils in Scotland received their results last week and the Scottish Qualifications Authority figures showed that the Higher pass rate was down from last year but it remained above 2019 levels.
Key statistics in this year’s A-level results
By Ian Jones, PA
Here are the main figures in this year’s A-level results
– The proportion of candidates receiving top grades has fallen from last year, but remains higher than before the Covid-19 pandemic. A total of 27.2% of entries were awarded either an A or A*, down from 36.4% in 2022 but up from 25.4% in 2019.
– Around one in 11 (8.9%) of entries received an A*. This is down from around one in seven in 2022 (14.6%), but higher than the figure in 2019, which was 7.7%.
– The overall pass rate (grades A* to E) was 97.3%. This is down from 98.4% in 2022 and also below 2019, which was 97.6%. It is the lowest figure since 2008, when it stood at 97.2%.
– Some 76.0% received a C or above, down from 82.6% in 2022 but just above the pre-pandemic figure of 75.9% in 2019.
– The lead enjoyed by girls over boys in the top grades has narrowed. The proportion of girls who got A or higher this year was 27.5%, 0.6 percentage points higher than boys (26.9%). Last year, girls led boys by 2.2 percentage points (37.4% girls, 35.2% boys).
– By contrast, boys have reclaimed their lead over girls in the highest grade, A*. The proportion of boys who got A* this year was 9.1%, 0.3 points higher than girls (8.8%). Girls had moved in front of boys in 2020 and remained ahead in 2021 and 2022. Boys had led girls at A* from 2012 through to 2019.
– The most popular subject this year was maths, for the 10th year in a row. It had 96,853 entries, up 1.3% on 2022.
– Psychology remains the second most popular subject. It had 80,493 entries, up 2.2% on 2022. Biology was once again the third most popular subject, with 74,650 entries, a rise of 3.7%.
– Economics has entered the top 10 most popular subjects for the first time, with 39,141 entries, up 7.3% from 36,483 in 2022. Geography has slipped out of the top 10.
– German saw the biggest drop in candidates for a single subject with more than 1,000 entries, falling by 15.9% from 2,803 in 2022 to 2,358 this year.
– Computing saw the biggest jump in candidates of any single subject with more than 1,000 entries, rising by 16.7% from 15,693 to 18,306.
– A total of 867,658 A-levels were awarded, up 2.2% on last year’s 848,910.