David Kernohan is an Associate Editor of Wonkhe


Matt Grogan is an Editorial Assistant at Wonkhe. 

The usual warning to start – this is a summary of sector wide trends for A levels and university entry.

If you are a young person with new qualifications (or you are supporting someone like that) bookmark this page to read later. Right now you should be in contact with your preferred higher education provider, seeking advice from teachers and others, and celebrating your achievement following the most awful two years in living memory.

For the rest of us – a lot of young people have done well in their A levels, Highers, and vocational qualifications (we focus on A levels here as the dominant route to higher education) which is great news for them. It may not be great news for the higher education sector. And the increases in both grades and the opportunities these open up are not evenly spread – it is the most advantaged that have seen the most benefit.

How did they do?

Nineteen per cent of all A level candidates in the UK attained an A* grade in 2021, up from 14 per cent last year.

That four percentage point improvement holds down to a B grade – 70 per cent of candidates this year achieved a B or better, compared to 66 per cent last year. However, the number of candidates failing an A level rose slightly – 99.46 per cent got an E or better this year, down from 99.74 last year.

And women did slightly better than men – 47 per cent of female entrants achieved a grade A or above, compared to 42 per cent of males.

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Examining the change at a subject level (2021 proportions achieving C+ [Top graph] and A+ [Bottom graph] on the x axis, with the number of 2021 entrants shown as the size of the blob) reveals more detail. Aside from the small Welsh (first language) A level cohort and those taking Further Maths at A level, the proportion of candidates awarded an A or above grew by at least four percentage points – rising to 7.6 percentage points for Biology, and 7.9 per cent in Psychology and Computing.

There was some suggestion that grades would be tougher to achieve in more subjective disciplines this year, but 54 per cent of Music candidates achieved an A (up 13.6 points on last year) and 48.8 per cent got an A in Drama (up 9 points).

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The expansion in higher grades in England is even clearer if you look at a longer time-series – here I’ve plotted this year’s results against awarded and calculated grades from 2020, and awarded grades from 2019.

Here, for example, we see that 23.5 per cent of Biology candidates in England achieved an A or better in 2019 (the last “normal” year). This rose to 24.7 in the original (“calculated”) awards for 2020 and to 36.6 using the final model of the best of centre assessed grades (CAGs) and calculated grades. In 2021 44.1 per cent of Biology candidates achieved an A or better.

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A DfE analysis of the results by entrant characteristics also makes the comparison with 2019, finding that the attainment gap for Black candidates, candidates with free school meals status (FSM) and candidates with a high level of deprivation has increased by around 1.4 percentage points in each case. In comparison with 2020s results the attainment gap for candidates with a higher level of deprivation has widened by 1.85 percentage points.

Where will they go?

How are universities dealing with this change to grade profiles? In a nutshell, selective providers are honouring large numbers of offers made before the grade disparity emerged. This means that more applicants than usual have seen their firm offer turn into a place, that the number and proportion of placed applicants has risen in high tariff (more selective) providers, and that 10 years of progress in widening access have come to a halt as the better-off applicants are more likely to apply to selective providers and have achieved well.

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We’re expecting a quieter than usual Clearing, with large numbers of applicants already placed and direct to Clearing numbers down. Those that do enter Clearing (or Adjustment!) will find a limited number of courses and providers offering places. As so many have achieved the grades required by their offer, the usual flexibility offered to those who “just miss” may be harder to find.

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The default view here perhaps flatters the performance of higher tariff providers a little – much of this growth continues a ten year trend in offering places to non-EU applicants. But even within England the growth is notable, for the first time ever more applicants have been placed in higher tariff groups than in medium tariff groups with much of this coming within the dominant group of 18 year old applicants. Mature applicant numbers are down slightly, but most are still at low tariff providers.

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We’re looking here at 18 year old applicants from the UK only, and both the growth in placements and the regressive impact of the changes to the grade profile can be seen clearly. Fully 48 per cent of 18 year olds from POLAR4 quintile 5 (the most advantaged) have a place at university (up from 42 per cent last year and 39 per cent in 2019) – in comparison just 21 per cent of 18 year olds in POLAR4 quintile 1 (least advantaged) have a place (compare 19 per cent last year and 17 per cent the year before). The growth in the entry rate in quintile 1 is welcome, but it is a long way off the growth rate in quintile 5.

All this puts last weekend’s debate about online lectures into perspective – with rapid and largely unplanned growth in student numbers many popular providers will simply not have the estate or the staff capacity to deliver lectures in person. Though many will be delighted to have gained a place on the course of their dreams, the next year will see close scrutiny of the quality of the student experience for these huge new cohorts (who will, of course, represent the second oversize cohort at places where exactly the same thing happened last year.

With overall growth so high, subject trends are more difficult to spot. The decline in single subject language courses continues, as does a drop in creative arts entry. Growth appears to be centred around subjects allied to medicine. There’s also a fascinating increase in Law placements – 2021 entry represents the last cohort who can qualify directly via a higher education course, in future the Solicitors Qualifying Examination (SQE) will be a means of qualification with HE competing with other routes to prepare candidates.

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What does higher education think?

A second year of crisis brings a second round of responses. But unlike last year’s muted affairs, which struggled even to name what had happened, this time around bodies across the sector have their positions staked out.

While many have taken the chance to congratulate students as usual, noting the record numbers headed for university in the autumn, there is the widespread recognition that the process has been flawed yet again. The Office for Students in particular put out a warning against universities pressuring students to defer their course, referencing its earlier warning from March not to risk quality through over-recruitment. The OfS also took the opportunity to remind providers of the commitments made as part of their access and participation plans.

In her response, UCAS chief executive Clare Marchant spoke of her disappointment that a decade of progress on widening participation has stalled, with independent school pupils’ grades rising almost ten per cent in the last year. Meanwhile, Ofqual’s response referenced the ongoing disruption but insisted that teacher-assessed grades allowed for greater flexibility in a difficult situation.

The Education Policy Institute was out of the gate quickly with its analysis, pinning the sharp rise in grades directly to the TAG system and criticising the government for ignoring warnings from earlier in the year. While the media has given much attention to the success of pupils from independent schools, EPI warns that this year’s higher grades are masking widespread learning loss, which will follow pupils for years to come.

Following his piece last week in the Sun, congratulating students on their “grit” in these difficult times, Gavin Williamson said that the government is exploring ways to address this year’s rise in grades and preparing for next year’s exam series. Speaking to the Today programme, he acknowledged that the higher grades may cause pressure for university places.

Moving away from what today’s results mean for pupils, the University and College Union has called for colleges to raise the wages of their staff in the light of record numbers entering higher education. This follows a previous offer of a 1 per cent pay rise.

The DfE moves to encourage successful medical applicants to consider alternate universities via the use of large sums of public money may yet not be the strangest part of the 2021 cycle.

2 responses to “A level results and university entry 2021

  1. Workloads are increasing, not just student numbers, whilst staff numbers are reducing, the sector however seems blind to this and even more over reliant on gig working young academics who live in hope of a ‘real’ contract if not tenure, how much long can/will this ‘house of cards’ remain standing?

    And we must thank phony Tony BLIAR (sp!) for his 50% policy, one with which every following government has been happy to engage, if it weren’t for the NEETs spoiling the numbers it would seem every young person is happily engaged in learning or working and not claiming social security. Though bigger problems will occur if record numbers of unable to cope or academically unsuitable students start dropping out, with damaged University reputations and student recruitment problems in the future.

    We are cursed, it seems, to live in interesting times.

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