Universities report record A-level grade acceleration in England and Wales

Up to half of applicants awarded two As, limiting places available for those who miss out on first choice

Universities are reporting a record-breaking acceleration in A-level results in England and Wales this summer, with as many as half of applicants awarded two A grades, leaving fewer places available for those who miss out on their first choice.

One university admissions officer said they were forecasting that top A* and A grades could be awarded to 45% of entries, based on the results they had seen so far, while others said the surge in results was outstripping optimistic expectations.

Last year more than 38% of entries in England were awarded A or A*, which was a sharp increase on the 25% awarded in 2019, when students last sat formal exams and the proportion of grades was managed by the exam regulator, Ofqual.

An official at one university said: “We’re seeing Bs turn into As and A*s ... with the vast majority of applicants comfortably qualifying for their offers.”

But, he cautioned: “We are only able to see the results for the students who hold our offers – the picture may well be different at other institutions in different directions.”

Candidates with A-levels generally apply with three subject grades. Another admissions offer said his institution was seeing “roughly one grade of grade inflation compared to last year” in the best three grades for each student.

Mark Corver, an admissions analyst at DataHE, said last year’s rise in grades took average applicant results from BBB-BBC to close to ABB. If the reports from admissions officers hold up, average grades of applicants would rise this year to close to AAB.

Corver said such an increase would put this year’s applicants grades close to the predicted grades made by teachers through the Ucas admissions system in 2020. “In that case, the effect on the applicant pool we estimated under this assumption is that those getting AAB or above would increase from 45% to 55%,” Corver said.

DataHE had advised its higher education clients to test their offers by assuming an acceleration in grades similar to 2020 as a “worst case” scenario. “We would see that as a upper limit, with the true increase more likely to be a bit lower,” Corver said.

The government has already announced extra funding of medical and dental school places to cope with the higher numbers of qualified students. Several universities are also preparing to offer incentives to students who can defer their entry.

School and university leaders said that accusations of unwarranted grade inflation were unfair to students and teachers, who had been forced to adapt to the government’s cancellation of formal exams.

Paul Whiteman, the general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, said: “This year’s grades are based on students’ actual work, assessed by their teachers, moderated and quality assured. This process has been carefully managed and each grade must have evidence to support it, so there is no sense to any claim that grades have been falsely inflated.

“It is not true to say that grading has simply been more generous in order to make up for disruption, as some have claimed. A claim like this is deeply unhelpful at this point in time, when students are only days away from getting their results.”

Prof Graham Galbraith, vice-chancellor of the University of Portsmouth, said it was “not reasonable” to compare this year’s results with other years. “Can’t we just forget the inflation obsession for this atypical year? Isn’t it more important that students get where they want to go?”

More cautious offers by universities will see fewer courses available in clearing and adjustment, the post-results process administered by Ucas. The Press Association reports that 27,600 courses at 315 UK institutions are listed on clearing, but just 3,000 at the 24 Russell Group of research-intensive universities.

Part of the pressure on places comes from increases in the number and proportion of applicants this year. A record number of 682,000 have applied through Ucas, a 4% increase on last year. That includes a record 310,000 sixth-formers applying, 10% more than in 2020 and representing 43% of the UK’s 18-year-olds. There is also a 7% increase in mature applicants.

Peter Kyle, the shadow schools minister, said too many students faced uncertainty because of the government’s mishandling of exams.

“Despite Gavin Williamson’s destructive management of our education system, the priority now is making sure every student makes these crucial steps to the place best suited to nurture their talents,” he said.

“Every business, university and [further education] college must act with creativity and energy to make sure that happens. We cannot allow the talent of a generation to fall victim to Gavin Williamson’s ineptitude.”

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Richard Adams Education editor

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