Pupils received lower A-level grades this year compared to the past two years when exams were not held due to the Covid-19 pandemic, official figures showed on Thursday.
Hundreds of thousands of pupils across England, Wales and Northern Ireland received their results. Despite the fall in top marks, the results were still higher than in the pre-pandemic year of 2019.
Pupils in the UAE who sat A-levels were also given their results on Thursday, with several schools on Wednesday posting a 100 per cent pass rate.
Grades had been expected to drop back from 2021 levels — when pupils were assessed by their teachers — as part of a transition year with marks reflecting a midway point between last year and 2019.
The number of school leavers accepted on to UK degree courses has fallen by 2 per cent this year, new figures show.
The Joint Council for Qualifications (JCQ) said the overall A-level pass rate — the proportion of entries graded A* to E — fell from 99.5 per cent in 2021 to 98.4 per cent this year.
But that is up from 97.6 per cent in 2019.
Entries receiving the top grades of A* and A were down 8.4 percentage points from 44.8 per cent last year to 36.4 per cent — but up 11.0 points from 25.4 per cent in 2019.
The figure for the highest grade, A*, was down year-on-year from 19.1 per cent to 14.6 per cent, but remains higher than in 2019 when it stood at 7.7 per cent.
And the proportion of entries graded A* to C dropped from 88.5 per cent in 2021 to 82.6 per cent this year, though that is up from 75.9 per cent in 2019.
The JCQ said there were a total of 848,910 A-level entries, up 2.9 per cent year-on-year, compared with an increase of 2.4 per cent in the 18-year-old population.
Girls continued to outperform boys overall, with A* to E grades at 98.7 per cent for the former, compared with 98.1 per cent for the latter.
The number of A-level pupils in England who took three A-levels and achieved all A* grades was nearly three times what it was in 2019, rising to 8,570 from 2,785.
Kath Thomas, interim chief executive of the JCQ, said the results “represent a huge milestone” in the country’s recovery from the pandemic.
Congratulating pupils, she said: “Not only is it the culmination of two years of hard work, but these students are the first to have taken formal summer exams in three years, so we should all celebrate this achievement.
“Exams are the fairest way to assess students, as they give everyone the chance to show what they know.
“Today’s results therefore represent a huge milestone in our recovery from the pandemic and are testament to the diligence and resilience of young people and school staff across the country.
“As intended, these results are higher than the last set of summer exams in 2019, but lower than last year’s teacher-assessed grades.
“This reflects the special arrangements that were put in place to support students, schools and colleges through another challenging year due to Covid.”
Dr Jo Saxton, chief regulator of Ofqual, the exams regulator in England, said: “I felt strongly that it would not have been right to go straight back to pre-pandemic grading in one go but accept that we do need to continue to take steps back to normality.
“These results overall, coming as they do broadly midway between 2021 and 2019, represent a staging post on that journey.”
Pupils in Scotland received the results of their Higher examinations last week, which showed a similar trend with the pass rate down from last year but above pre-pandemic levels in 2019.
Somalian refugee Nagma Abdi, from Roehampton in south-west London, said she was “very happy” with her A-level results of A in sociology, just four marks from an A*, and B in psychology and C in media studies.
The 18-year-old is preparing to study law after securing her first choice of university, the London School of Economics.
“I feel very happy, I’ve worked very hard, and obviously with Covid it’s been quite challenging,” she said. “It made everything more difficult, you were very unsure what was happening. We weren’t sure whether the exams would happen, then there were questions about grade boundaries and questions because we’ve had changed curriculums.”
Ms Abdi arrived in the UK at the age of seven after her family fled Somalia’s civil war.
“English became a big challenge — it took me about a year and a half to work out grammar — but in the end, everything went well for me,” she said.
Zorian Tytych, a Ukrainian living in Cardiff, celebrated his four As in maths, physics, chemistry and biology. While revising for exams, the 18-year-old was keen to help his fellow Ukrainians fleeing the Russian invasion and volunteered as a translator for refugees arriving in Wales. He also offered his translation services to the British Army.
“I am helping these families by translating documents for them, helping them with day-to-day tasks and being a friend to them,” he told Wales Online. “They need someone they can communicate with.
“When my A levels finished, I joined the Armed Forces Military Training Programme over the summer as a translator. Britain now has 10,000 Ukrainian soldiers receiving training from the British Army here in the UK and they need translators and helpers.”
Rand El-Shebli, a 17-year-old from Battersea in south London, felt her generation had not been treated fairly given that they missed out on sitting GCSEs due to the pandemic.
After achieving an A in media studies, a B in psychology and a B in sociology, she is going to study psychology at Queen Mary University of London.
“I was expecting a bit better, but overall I’m happy because for those to be the first exams since SATs, it’s a big achievement and everyone should be proud regardless of what they got,” she said. “We’re the first year to never have sat GCSEs then go straight into A-levels. We did have some help but I feel like it’s not entirely fair but overall I think people did get what they deserved.”
The Ark Academy Putney school-leaver added: “At the end of the day, I feel like it’s pretty unfair for your whole secondary school and A-level life to be determined by just one grade and three papers that you sit. Your future depends on that, which isn’t the best.
“I did expect the grade boundaries to be lower but if anything they are not actually low, which again is not really fair. It has become normal for people to get A*, and I think they wanted that grade to be reserved for a particular type of student this year.”
Education Secretary James Cleverly congratulated A-level pupils, who he said had endured “unprecedented disruption over the last couple of years”, and said their “excellent results are a testament to their resilience and hard work.”
“Our plan this year was to ensure that students could sit their exams for the first time since 2019, be graded fairly and move on to the next stage of their lives as we return to normality after the pandemic,” he said. “We have now seen the largest number of students on record for an examination year — including a record 23,220 of disadvantaged 18-year-olds — going on to university, while many others will take their next steps in further training or the world of work.
“Regardless of what those next steps are, I wish all students the very best on this exciting new chapter in their lives.”
The Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (Ucas) said a total of 425,830 students have had places confirmed, a drop compared to last year, when a record 435,430, from the UK and overseas, had places confirmed.
But despite the decrease, this year’s figure is the second highest on record, and up 16,870 compared with 2019 when exams were last held.
Ucas said there was a 19 per cent increase in 18-year-olds in the UK achieving a place at either their first or insurance choice of university this year, compared with 2019.
The number of pupils from the most disadvantaged backgrounds to gain places on courses was 6,850 this year, up from 3,770 in 2019.
The admissions service said this translates to a narrowing of the gap between the most and least advantaged, with the ratio at 2.36 in 2019, 2.29 this year, and 2.34 in 2021.
Katie Normington, chancellor of De Montfort University, said staff have seen a rise in the number of applications from pupils living locally.
She told Sky News the university was “five or six times busier than we were last year” with pupils looking for student places.
“Some interesting patterns really are local students are up, so about three more percentage points of students who have got a Leicester postcode and coming to us,” she said. “So a sort of shift to people wanting to perhaps stay a bit closer to home. That will be to do with the economics of it and wanting to live at home while they study.”