Those A level grades are actually good news

Students who got their A Level, BTEC or T level results yesterday have had a tough few years. They took their GCSES in 2021 after 18 months of major disruption to their studies. That then had an impact on their choices at 16 and their ability to benefit from the next stage. This has all been well understood by their teachers, by exam boards and by universities. We should celebrate the students’ resilience and tenacity, and the ingenuity of the teachers who have been working through some very serious challenges.

Some of the headlines in the press have been rather strident. “Thousands miss top grades as A Level results plummet” is the headline in the print version of the Guardian, modified to “Thousands fewer students in England awarded top A-Level grades” online. That seemingly minor change in wording indicates that the situation is actually more nuanced than it first appeared.

This year the spread of A level grades has returned to close to that in 2019, which means that fewer students have been awarded the coveted A or A* grades. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that their futures are going to any different from their peers in 2022.

A levels and their equivalents act as gatekeepers to Higher Education. In theory, it doesn’t matter where the grade boundaries lie as long as the students’ achievements are ranked correctly. This enables the Universities to identify the students best suited to their courses. (Of course, it is more complicated than that, because we don’t have post-qualification admission, and offers have to be made on predicted grades – that introduces some inaccuracies into the system that may or may not be compensated for during clearing. But that’s a topic for another time.)

As it happens, Universities were aware that grades would be returning to “normal” this year so adjusted their offers accordingly, which should mean that the transition to Higher Education will be smooth for most students. In fact, 79% of students who applied to University this year achieved the grades to get into their first choice, compared with 74% in 2019 – so that left more students happy with their results than pre-pandemic.

Whilst that is the overall picture, there is one striking anomaly. The Guardian article mentioned above includes this statement: “Independent and grammar schools had the largest drop in top grades compared with last year”. Put another way, the students who benefitted most from the temporary assessment processes used during the pandemic were those in selective and fee paying schools – the very pupils who are already advantaged by our skewed education system.

We should be pleased that the system is removing unfair advantages, rather than criticising the superficial effects.

However there is one caveat. The action taken by exam boards has not been consistent across the four nations. The largest step change has been taken in England, whereas the exam boards in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have taken a more gradual approach to returning to pre-Covid levels. This does appear to give an advantage to students in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland who have applied to Universities in England, unless, of course, the Universities were aware and adjusted their offers to those students accordingly.

Elsewhere in The Guardian (sorry, this does reveal my media of choice), there is a focus on Richard Challoner School in New Malden where the “overall picture was overwhelmingly positive”. The Head, Sean Maher, who has spoken at Conference in the past on educational issues, is quoted:

It is testament to the professionalism of our staff. I feel vindicated by the hard work. In some ways results are immaterial. Are they lovely young men and women? If we can say that and they’ve got the results they deserve, then we can say our job is done.




* Mary Reid is a contributing editor on Lib Dem Voice. She was a councillor in Kingston upon Thames, where she is still very active with the local party, and is the Hon President of Kingston Lib Dems.

Read more by or more about or .
This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • I’m surprised that so little fuss is made about the fact that girls regularly outperform boys in A level assessments. I’m sure if it were the other way around, people would be complaining about a sexist exam system that favoured one sex over another but, for some reason, the sex disparity in exam performance is ignored when boys are the ones disadvantaged. There is some evidence that the move towards assessing by coursework and folios rather than solely by final exams has favoured girls – if that is the case, it is high time the matter were addressed. As a mother of two small boys, I do not like the thought that the exam system could disadvantage their life chances

  • @Sandy Smith.
    The news that girls outperform boys goes back many years. Back in the 60s I spent some time in my gap year working for an educational research project. I was shocked to discover that 11+ results were routinely adjusted so the same number of boys “passed” as girls. If they had used a common pass mark they would have needed far more grammar school places for girls than for boys.

    This strong performance of girls was masked by societal attitudes which saw girls’ post-16 education as a waste of time, so far fewer girls actually took A levels and boys appeared to be ahead. Now that girls are strongly encouraged to take their education as far as they can we can all see how well they do, and how wrong those attitudes were.

    We should be celebrating the achievement of young women not knocking them back again into the past.

  • Martin Gray 18th Aug '23 - 3:34pm

    Nobody is knocking the achievement and hard work of pupils who’ve excelled at A levels ….But surely we should be concerned about those that continue to under achieve – which has been going on for a considerable time …

  • Sandy Smith 18th Aug '23 - 4:06pm

    @Thanks for your reply, Mary, but are we meant to just accept that the education/exam system appears to lead to unequal outcomes between boys and girls? Unless we are arguing that female brains are inherently more intelligent and more capable of learning, we have to accept that the system is not serving boys as well as girls. We hear a lot about closing the poverty related attainment gap, and about the gender pay gap – but the gender attainment gap is completely ignored? Perhaps the Liberal Democrats, as the party most committed to equality, should be championing this issue?

  • From reading the above comments I can only conclude that our view of unequal outcomes varies according to who, exactly, is coming out on top.
    Beyond that, it’s worth asking what A levels measure, exactly. The general view from the scientific community is that there is no difference in IQ between men and women, though a few studies have suggested that men may have a small advantage of 3-4 in IQ (Irving & Lynn 2006, Jackson & Rushton, etc).
    It has been suggested in the context of social class attainment that the education system rewards the values of hard work and conformity rather than pure ability (Schooling In Capitalist America, Bowles & Gintis 1976) and, if we apply that logic to gender, it seems plausible to suggest that young men in their mid to late teens might, on average, be less diligent and compliant than their female peers. All of which suggests that Sandy Smith is right to be concerned that the present system doesn’t seem to give young men full opportunity to show us what they can do.

  • Sandy Smith 18th Aug ’23 – 4:06pm:
    Unless we are arguing that female brains are inherently more intelligent and more capable of learning,…

    The reason is likely multifactorial. In general, girls tend to be better disciplined, motivated and mature for their age than boys. All of those factors can be improved upon by coaching and encouragement. On average, female brains are also better adapted for the type of subjects predominantly taught in schools today which often emphasise language and communication skills. Male brains — again on average — perform better where spatial visualisation skills are required, such as in Technical Drawing. Here’s a large scale study from South Africa which found evidence of that difference…

    ‘Learners taking technical drawing : does gender make a difference?’ [2007]:

    This study investigates differences in the performances of boys and girls in Technical Drawing in secondary schools in Gauteng and North-West provinces in South Africa. […]

    A significant gender difference was found in both provinces in both higher and standard grade scores. The results revealed that male learners achieved significantly higher scores within this five year period in this subject than female learners.

    Some of this difference is likely evolutionary and some cultural — most young girls don’t get to play with construction toys — a point well made by Debbie Sterling, inventor and founder of GoldieBlox:

    ‘Inspiring the next generation of female engineers | Debbie Sterling | TEDxPSU’ [2013]:

  • Graham Jeffs 19th Aug '23 - 9:07am

    Thank you Sandy Smith and Jeff for your sensible comments. To be concerned about these issues is not to be ” knocking them (girls/women) back again into the past”.

    Clearly the time and way in which brains mature can be different. Children born in July and August have been shown to be disadvantaged in the education system because they are relatively so much younger than some of their peers. At the very least, let us recognise these challenges. Unfortunately too many teachers prefer not to.

    My own (unscientific) take on things is that ‘the boys’ may not catch up until their early twenties. And yes, it would be nice if the LDs could champion this issue and bring some balance to the wider debate.

  • Peter Hirst 20th Aug '23 - 4:26pm

    Most grades depend on memory that is only one component of intelligence. Various issues determine your memory on a day including emotional balance, preparation and support. Exams are only one method of evaluating aptitude and for some with lower grades they might be a welcome nudge.

  • Patrick C Smith 23rd Aug '23 - 12:11pm

    To stipulate, motivate and sustain the new impetus placed by government and emplyoyers in post 16 and full-time education, there has to be greater grativitas and stress on post GCSE students, to allow their liberty in making individual choices and chosen pathways, into either the academic regime of A Level clusters or to offer the new T-Technical pathways, that are now optional from 2023/24 that will lead to skilled vocational choices of work placement , training and permanent employment.

    The T-Techical Levels are equivalent to 3 A Levels;80% in classroom/20% in Industry, that includes a hands on approach, world of work experience component, that will enhance skills sets, like Agriciulture,Business Admin. and Management,Digital and germane training for the AI revolution ,that the UK must embrace but can only do so with help from the new T-Level generation.

    The Technical Levels that are now available cheek by jowel with our traditional A Levels were designed by 200 British Employers at the core of the World of Work ,whom agreed on the consensus balance of skills,knowledge and work experience required to equip 16 + students with requisite Technical driven vocational qualifications, that are nationally certified and transferable in the jobs market for the duration of individual life employment and work family life balance and harmony.

    The new T -Levels require 315 Hrs world of work placements with potential vocatioanl employers.

    T Grades list vocational skills so that Employers cabn tell at interviews what skills are required and to match T-Skills with world of work.

  • Those A level grades are not particularly good news, due to the decision to penalise students by massively reducing grades, particularly in STEM subjects (a drop of two grades ie.. A to C seems common).
    These students were massively impacted by COVID, having two years of disruption to GCSEs (and not siting exams) followed by A-levels where time needed to be spent covering missed GCSE material with the obvious knock on effects on time and preparedness for A-level material and syllabus coverage.

    As for universities adjusting their offers, this also is nuanced, but more importantly the problem of the missed learning has been passed from schools to universities…

Post a Comment

Lib Dem Voice welcomes comments from everyone but we ask you to be polite, to be on topic and to be who you say you are. You can read our comments policy in full here. Please respect it and all readers of the site.

To have your photo next to your comment please signup your email address with Gravatar.

Your email is never published. Required fields are marked *

Please complete the name of this site, Liberal Democrat ...?


Recent Comments

  • Simon R
    I'm also rather puzzled by Michael's post to me. In particular, I've said a couple of times that any job guarantee scheme would have to somehow provide for peop...
  • Simon R
    The ONS figures ( show £38 600 was the mean gross salary for full-time workers in 2020....
  • Paul Holmes
    @Mick Taylor. What happened post 2010 is an entirely different matter. The best Target Seat campaign in the world would have made little difference to the self ...
  • Paul Holmes
    @Mick Taylor. Except that what you say is totally untrue of the period I referred to. From 1997 to 2001 to 2005 to 2010 the number of Target Seats grew at each ...
  • Mary Fulton
    Nonconformistradical I would define ready as having our candidates in place in all constituencies. I don’t know how far down the road we are on this across t...