A-level results soared this morning with record numbers achieving the top grades, girls pulling ahead of boys, and unprecedented numbers securing a place on their first-choice university course.
Almost a fifth — 19.1 per cent — of A-level entries were awarded A*, up from 14.3 per cent last year across England, Wales and Northern Ireland. The proportion given at least an A grade increased from 38.6 to 44.8 per cent.
As expected, private schools swept the board with 70 per cent of grades at A* or A, up from 60 per cent last year. Forty per cent of independent school entries were A*, compared with 15 per cent at comprehensives and 26 per cent at selective state schools.
Almost 13,000 pupils achieved three A* grades — four times the number in 2019, the last year that exams were taken.
The gap between boys and girls achieving the top grade widened, with the proportion of female pupils achieving an A* increasing by 5.3 percentage points and against a rise of 4.2 percentage points for male pupils.
The A-level pass rate was 99.5 per cent at A* to E grade and some subjects showed substantial numbers of top grades — 31 per cent of those taking Classics achieved an A* as did 26.7 per cent of candidates in French and 28.7 per cent of those sitting maths.
The achievement of disadvantaged pupils was not revealed in the exam board figures, released by the Joint Council for Qualifications but heads of exam boards said the gap was no wider than last year.
Separate figures from Ucas showed that a record 395,770 students, up 8 per cent from last year, have a confirmed place on their first choice of full-time undergraduate course in the UK. Ninety-one per cent of students were accepted for their first choice.
The number of school-leavers accepted into university courses rose 17 per cent compared with last year, with 245,330 — or 34 per cent of all 18-year-olds in the UK — starting courses this autumn.
A record 20.7 per cent of teenagers from the most disadvantaged backgrounds have received a place, though the gap between the richest and poorest students has not narrowed.
More than 48 per cent of those from the most affluent fifth of applicants got into universities this year, a rise of 10 per cent compared with last year. This was the biggest rise of any quintile, with the rise among the most disadvantaged students at only 6 per cent.
The number of students on medical courses also increased as 8,560 students from England were accepted into medicine and dentistry, up 23 per cent from 6,960 last August.
The number of nursing students rose by 10,000 on last year to 63,120, a trend previously attributed to the efforts of the NHS during the pandemic. This is the highest number of nursing students and the biggest annual rise in a decade.
Teacher-assessed grades were used this year after exams were cancelled in January. Last year an algorithm used to make results consistent had to be abandoned after an outcry.
This year there was no initial attempt to use a formula to moderate results that were submitted by schools with some supporting evidence. Instead, checks were conducted by Ofqual, the exams regulator.
Ofqual said this morning it had queried the results of 15 per cent of schools and colleges and conducted random checks on about 20 per cent. It changed grades at less than 1 per cent of schools. It said it was satisfied with most results but that exam boards were in “continuing discussions” with a small number of schools and colleges.
There was an increase in entries, with geography growing most in popularity, along with science subjects. Maths remains the most popular subject, with the number of students up again to more than 97,000.
In England 19 per cent of students achieved A* and 44.3 per cent had at least an A grade. In Northern Ireland 15.8 per cent of students achieved an A* grade and 50.8 per cent at least an A grade. In Wales, 21.3 per cent achieved A* and 48.3 per cent at least an A.
The gap between boys and girls at the top grade widened. Girls were, on average, half a grade ahead of boys.
Private schools were 9.3 percentage points ahead of last year’s results at A grade or above, compared with 5.7 per cent of academies and 6.2 per cent of comprehensives.
Experts said this year’s results could not be compared with last year’s as they had been calculated in a completely different way. Simon Lebus, the head of Ofqual, said exams were preferable to teacher assessment but that this year’s system had allowed teachers to be flexible.
Clare Marchant, the head of Ucas, said: “After around a decade of widening participation progress, albeit slow, it is disappointing to see it stall, though this should be seen in light of record numbers of students from disadvantaged backgrounds being accepted. We know that many young people are looking at all of their options, with over three quarters of those who haven’t applied through Ucas saying they’re interested in an apprenticeship.”
Gavin Williamson, the education secretary, said this morning that the government was looking at policies to tackle grade inflation, including preparing mitigations for next year’s exams.
As a result of the higher grades, there might be a squeeze on university places, he added.
Speaking to Today on BBC Radio 4before the results were published, he said: “We recognise that there is a demographic bulge coming through for university places, so there’s more students who are of that age where they would look at university, and there are more students who have maybe done a little bit better in their grades, got better grades than they expected and are changing the decisions for the routes they go down.”
Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said: “Students deserve huge credit as do leaders and teachers who have worked with great professionalism and commitment to support their students throughout the pandemic and to then assess them for these important qualifications following the government’s decision to cancel public exams for the second year in a row.
“It is important to understand that the system used to assess students this year is different from both formal exams and the approach that was used last year too when an attempt to use an algorithm to standardise grades nationally went wrong and had to be abandoned. It is therefore invidious to make direct comparisons with other years and vital that we celebrate the achievements of this year’s cohort who have had to endure so much over the past 18 months.”
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