A testing time for A-Level pupils as universities adapt to a post-Covid world

Marking could revert to 2019 levels after UK government pressure for restoration of pre-pandemic standards

Students react after collecting their 'A' level exam results at Edgbaston High School for Girls in Birmingham, Britain August 17, 2017. REUTERS/Darren Staples
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At some UAE schools that follow the British curriculum, there has perhaps been an even greater sense of trepidation than normal ahead of this year's A-Level and AS-Level results.

This is due to the expectation that fewer A* and A grades will be awarded than in 2020, 2021 and 2022, when there was a bumper crop of top results.

UK government ministers, who are responsible for education in England, want results there to revert to the levels of 2019, when far fewer A*s and As were given out.

Cambridge Assessment International Education, which provides A-level, AS-level and other qualifications for schools outside Britain, follows the standards set in England and a spokeswoman told The National this week that, as a result, the organisation was looking to return to 2019 grade patterns.

It released its results for Cambridge International A-level and AS-level students on Thursday.

The remaining exam results for pupils in the UK and overseas will be released next Thursday.

When Covid-19 hit, teacher assessments were used in place of written exams in 2020 and 2021 in the UK, and many other countries taking the exams, which led to a big increase in the number of top grades. In 2021, almost 45 per cent of A-level entries were awarded an A* or A.

Back to the drawing board

The reversion to 2019 standards began last year in England, when results dipped slightly but remained above pre-Covid-19 levels.

Few people analyse A-level results more closely than Prof Alan Smithers, director of the Centre for Education and Employment Research at the University of Buckingham.

During the period of teacher assessment, Prof Smithers said grades "got completely out of hand" but reverting to the pre-pandemic proportions of top grades was not easy.

"The bonanza of A* and A grades changed expectations of what [pupils] could receive and changed the distribution of A*s and As," he said.

"This numerical imperative of getting the exams back to a solid basis comes up against human nature and the changed expectations and changes in the distribution of the awards."

In a recent report, Prospects for A-levels 2023, Prof Smithers noted that in 2020 and 2021 combined, the percentage of A* grades increased from 7.8 per cent to 19.1 per cent, while the proportion of entries awarded either A* or A jumped from 25.5 per cent to 44.8 per cent.

"I don’t know how it will work out," he added. "My guess is the numbers and percentages will be reduced this year but they may not get back to the level of 2019."

In the years up to 2019, results had remained relatively stable after efforts by the UK government to stem the grade inflation that had taken place in preceding decades.

While it meant good news for many students, the surge in the numbers of top A-level grades in 2020 caused a headache for some universities, as they had more pupils who achieved the required entry grades than would have been the case in another year.

Typically, universities make more conditional offers to would-be students than they have places in the expectation that many will miss out on the required grades and attend a different university instead.

After grades spiked in 2020, some universities found themselves with more qualified candidates than places.

Prof Smithers said the increase in the number of top grades meant greater pressure on places at some institutions has continued.

Academic competition

A number of young people have deferred to later years, which has raises new concerns given that grades are expected to fall this year.

"People are saying that [students] this year are going to find themselves in competition with people who got grades in easier years," Prof Smithers said.

"With so many top grades, universities cannot tell applicants apart. That’s why it’s so important to restore the value of the grades."

If top grades are awarded in larger numbers, universities would look for additional information to distinguish between candidates, according to AS Careers founder Ann Starkie, a careers adviser in the UK.

"The message for candidates is if you want to go to a top university, you should be looking to do additional things that will make you stand out," she said.

"If you have so many candidates looking the same, you have to have something that you’re offering that’s a little bit different."

For vocational courses in particular, securing a place at university may require much more than good A-level results.

"For some university courses you still need to do additional tests," she said. "You won’t get through [just] by having three As.

"Some universities have put in additional testing and interviews. They’re not just looking for top academics but people who can do the job – soft skills, communication."

While there has been much grade inflation, Prof Smithers said pupils in the UAE and elsewhere could be confident of the value of their grades, given the efforts made to restore the 2019 standards.

Every year, some pupils receive grades below expectations, which may mean they have to rethink which university they attend, their subject choice or whether they go to university at all.

Alan Bullock, a careers adviser who has given talks in UAE schools, said there were "always alternative options" for young people whose grades were below their expectations.

These include trying to find a place on a course through the university clearing process, resitting A-levels with a view to applying the following year, looking at degree apprenticeships or taking time out to reassess options.

"Over many, many years I’ve seen many young people who had gone for a particular course and not got in," he said.

"It can often be devastating at the time but there are always different solutions. Quite often it can be a blessing in disguise.

"The following year they’ve applied for something else which turns out to be much more suitable. They’ve had those extra months to mature … a year later they go into something different to what they originally planned. Often it’s a more realistic choice."

Updated: August 13, 2023, 5:22 AM