1) The A-level results were a triumph for pupils and teachers, who have managed courses which were badly disrupted by COVID-19.
Praise too for Ofqual and the exam boards who ensured exams happened at all. Back in the autumn of 2021 there were calls to scrap exams this year and the message went out from Ofqual that schools should set regular internal exams to provide the basis for teacher-assessed grades just in case. But Ofqual held its nerve – and these results are the outcome.
2) There are a number of reasons why it was important that public exams were held this summer. We have had two years of no exams due to COVID-19 and those taking A-levels this year did not take GCSEs. We know from pupil surveys that these students were very keen to sit proper exams this summer because they wanted to prove themselves in a way that is generally perceived as fair and rigorous – unlike teacher-assessed grades.
Some people seem to be very opposed to written exams, believing that they create stress and are flawed as an assessment method. I simply don’t agree with that. For many pupils the prospect of A-levels being cancelled was far more stressful than taking the exams themselves. Exams are a great way of motivating pupils and pretty well the only way of making pupils commit knowledge to the long-term memory – one of the most important characteristics of education. People who use the results of exams, such as universities and employers, value them as a valid way of measuring a student’s knowledge, intelligence and effort.
3) This year Ofqual and the Department of Education decided to start moving the distribution of grades back towards the grade distribution seen before COVID-19, that is, in 2019. They are doing this in two steps in order to be kind to this year’s pupils who missed a great deal of face-to-face teaching when schools were shut.
So grades this year are lower than in 2021 and will be lower still next year.
The reason for this move is that the use of teacher-assessed grades in the past two years resulted in a huge amount of grade inflation – more at A-level than GCSE. Before COVID-19 the proportion getting the top grade, A*, was 7.8%. Last year it was 19.1%. This year it is 14.6%.
The problem with grade inflation is that it devalues the currency and the most selective institutions – top universities and medical schools – cannot use the results to identify the very best students. This compels these selective institutions to introduce additional tests of their own.
% A* %A*A
2019 7.8 25.5
2021 19.1 44.8
2022 14.6 36.4
Just because the average grade distribution this year is midway between 2019 and 2021 does not mean it will be midway for individual schools. Some schools will do better than that, some worse. It is difficult to predict what the midpoint approach means for each individual school as this depends on how generous (or not) the school’s teacher-assessed grades were in 2021 and the ability of their 2022 A-level pupils.
Results in summer 2021 were more inflated in some subjects than others, including music, drama, PE, Spanish and computer science. Ofqual wants to re-establish pre-pandemic relationships between subjects, so the grades in some of these inflated subjects have fallen more than others.
Some pupils and schools will be understandably shocked by their results, as happens in every normal year. These A-level students never took GCSEs so it has been harder to predict their A-level results accurately. Their 2020 teacher-assessed GCSE grades were quite flattering.
Schools predict pupils’ A-level grades and these predictions are used by universities to make offers. Pupils see these predicted grades and believe them. But in recent years 79% of predicated grades have been wrong, mostly too generous.
Some students have had a more disrupted education over the past two years than others. The Ofqual mitigations apply to everyone equally so they will probably not reduce the attainment gap between those who had little disruption and those who missed a great deal of school.
This will be the first time since 2019 that exams have been written and marked in the normal way. This fact alone may have an impact. Some young teachers have had little experience of preparing pupils for public exams.
So we may see a large number of remark requests in the coming month.
Have independent schools done ‘too well’? All students undertook the same assessments, which were set, independently marked and graded by the exam boards. As such, students can be confident that they have been graded in the same way as everyone else. Ofqual’s own analysis this year shows that the proportion of independent school pupils getting A*/A has fallen from 70.4% in 2021 to 58% this year. That this drop is greater than some other types of school is expected because independent school students are more clustered at top end of grade scale where there has been most grade deflation.
When asked if independent schools had done ‘too well’ in 2021, Ofqual responded as follows: Exam boards looked at student work from all types of school and college as part of the external quality assurance process. They did not find that any type of school or college was more likely than others to have provided grades that did not reflect the standard of their students’ work. Indeed, they found that, irrespective of the type of school or college, the grades were usually supported by the quality of students’ work.
Exam boards allow schools to request copies of marked scripts, so for less experienced teachers this is a great resource: they can see exactly what an A* script looks like compared to, say, an A or B.
4) Because of the disruption to schooling over the past two years, A-levels this year were made slightly easier by cutting out parts of syllabuses and announcing in advance which topics will come up. These are called ‘mitigations’.
Although the syllabus reductions this year were made with the best of intentions – to help those pupils who missed a lot of school because of COVID-19 – it does mean that pupils know less that those who took exams with full syllabuses before 2020. In some university courses, catch-up classes will be needed.
5) One of the more remarkable facts is that, despite the fact that most schools are co-educational and place a great emphasis on gender equality, the take-up of different subjects is very different for boys and girls.
Subject choice by gender, UK 2022 (1,000s)
The statement that ‘girls do not like maths’, incidentally, is wrong. Although fewer girls take maths than boys (36,000 compared to 60,000 this year), maths is still one of the most popular subjects for girls.
Nor is it true that girls do not like science. More girls take chemistry and biology than boys; it is just physics which seems relatively unpopular with them. I blame old-fashioned and false stereotypes that link physics to ‘male’ occupations such as engineering.
As for psychology and sociology, these are great subjects but unfortunately it is not true, as Maureen Lipman said, if ‘you get an ology, you’re a scientist’.
6) Another interesting matter revealed by the results is the extent to which some school sixth form subjects are growing while others are declining.
Despite an overall increase in the numbers taking A-levels, there was a decline in numbers taking English, maths, French, religious studies, chemistry and physics. The decline in English and French continues a long-term trend.
But many other subjects grew, notably design technology, computing, politics, PE, psychology, business studies, sociology, economics, geography and law. The increase in design technology is the reversal of a long-term decline.
7) What about university entrance? University entry is a bit harder this year than last.
Last year, universities took too many students because the grades of applicants were inflated. Students need accommodation and, in the case of medicine and sciences, they need hospital placements and laboratories. So, universities that took too many last year are cutting back this year. There is a reduced offer rate, especially in medicine and dentistry. 16% of medicine and dentistry applications have received an offer this year compared to 29% in 2019.
The other thing that makes it harder to win a university place this year is that demand has increased.
The number of 18-year-olds is growing 3% a year and the proportion of them applying to go to university has grown. 44% of 18-year-olds applied to university this year – a record.
There is also continued growth in demand from international students, especially those from outside the EU. Universities get £24,000 a year for overseas students compared to £9250 for home students. So it is not surprising that one in five of the undergraduates at Russell Group universities are from overseas.
On the day results were issued UCAS said that 20,360 university applicants were without a confirmed place because they had missed the required grades to take up their offer, up 46% on last year. However, a record 425,830 students will be taking up a place at university next month. An unprecedented 23,220 18-year-olds from disadvantaged backgrounds will also be enrolling.
This year has seen A-levels on the road to recovery. A-levels allow pupils to select the subjects they like and that drives their motivation. Without motivation, little can be achieved.
Some people dislike the narrowness of a sixth form based on only three to four subjects, but good schools – including all independent schools – take steps to ensure that the sixth form experience is a lot more than that. A-levels are high quality qualifications that have provided the launch pad for entry to university and good jobs since the 1951. It was good to see a return to form this summer.
By Professor Barnaby Lenon
Dean of Education, University of Buckingham