David Kernohan is Acting Editor of Wonkhe

In England, Wales, and Northern Ireland large parts of the cohort that will enter undergraduate courses in the autumn took A level exams in May and June this year.

SQA results day has already happened in Scotland – as we will see is very instructive for those in other UK nations.

The operative word here is “exams” – after two years of grades being awarded on (moderated) teacher assessments, 2022 saw a return to the more traditional (and arguably less effective) method of assessing what students can do by sitting them at a desk on their own in the gym for three hours.

Will these students have learned more? We’ll never know from the exam results – after two years of grades being based on attainment, we are returning to a system of grading to a curve. Results will reflect a staging post between the criterion-based 2022 results and the grade distributions that lasted largely unchanged between 2010 and 2019s.

Exploring grading

What am I on about? Vastly simplifying, there are broadly two ways of awarding grades. The first takes a look at what a student can actually do and assigns a grade based on that. Has someone demonstrated “a superb knowledge of underlying concepts”, “provided very strong evidence of the ability to apply these concepts to new situations”, and all the rest of it? Well, in that case, they get an A. This is called criterion referenced grading – any student who can meet the criteria is given the grade. We did this for A levels in 2020 and 2021.

The other option is to give every student an exam, mark it, and then rank the students based on how they did. Then the top X per cent get A*, the next Y per cent get an A, and so on. This is known as norm referenced grading – and we already know what proportion (and thus how many) A level candidates will get any given grade. To be clear, in A levels there is some scope for grades to improve overall over time (not that we have seen, but the infrastructure is there), so it isn’t purely norm-referenced.

Which is fairer? There are arguments on either side – and in different contexts, each has strengths and weaknesses. It is notable, for our purposes, that nearly all assessment carried out at universities is graded with reference to criteria.

2020 and 2021 in context

The “mutant algorithm” results in 2020 came about because of an attempt to apply norm-referenced grading without large-scale national exams. Schools were asked to grade and also to rank their A level candidates – this rank, along with statistical information about the historic performance of each exam centre was used to preserve a grade distribution similar to that used in previous years. It was unpopular because it was demonstrably unfair – two students performing at an identical academic level could get different grades based on how candidates from their school had performed in previous years.

So what was actually awarded in 2020 – the “Centre Assessed Grades” – were simply the teachers’ own criterion-referenced grades, which themselves were based on how teachers had seen similar candidates (with similar levels of aptitude) graded in that subject in previous years.

The next year’s A level results saw teachers again as the source of judgement on grades. In this, they were supported by better guidance (including better criterion statements), and some standard coursework provided by exam boards. For the first time since 2009, the system was designed to be criterion referenced. And we saw more evidence of excellence, in more places, than ever before.

A return to the norm

One downside of criterion referenced grades is that you don’t know how many of each you will see nationally until the marking is done. Though this is good news for students – who are marked based on what they can do rather than what their peers can do – but it is bad news for universities and other higher education providers who want to manage the size of their intake. For that reason, 2022’s return to norm referenced grades has been welcomed by the higher education sector – they will find it much easier to make offers to students based on their predicted and actual grades.

But there are three other things we need to bear in mind. The first is demographics – there are more A level entrants this year than ever before, some 788,125 (up 4.2 per cent on last year). The second is finance – providers are feeling the effects of the home undergraduate fee freeze more acutely than expected this year given rises in the cost of, well, everything. And the third is student experience – lots of popular courses over-recruited in 2020 and 2021 because of an inability to predict the number of applicants holding offers that would get the required grades.

Lots of A level entries mean more competition for spaces, and providers feeling the pinch means that the temptation to scale back home undergraduates (and fill up on international and postgraduate students that at least cover the cost of their own teaching) is high. A few nasty National Student Survey shocks mean that some providers may decide that a more controlled 2022 intake might help ease the pressure on staff, infrastructure and services that have been at or above capacity for the last two years.

The politics

You’ve probably spotted that the usual August season of “aren’t universities terrible?” stories are underway. If you are detecting a note of desperation about them this time round, this is because university study remains very popular, and there are few signs of this changing any time soon.

At the main January 2022 UCAS deadline, just over 43 per cent of UK 18-year-olds had applied to university – both the highest proportion and the highest number on record. By July the proportion in England had reached 45 per cent – some 458,980 applicants, and a 5 per cent increase on 2021. To be blunt, the government has chosen not to invest in the capacity of the sector to meet these demands – the fee cap at £9,250 is now equivalent to around £6,500 in 2012 prices, and it does not appear that OfS can be relied on to distribute additional funding in predictable ways.

This comes alongside the good news that UK higher education is very attractive to international students. Applications for undergraduate study to English providers, for example, have risen more than 4 per cent since the 2021 cycle (up to 130,120 – a hair below the 2020 record and in line with the government’s own strategy).

Despite this, at least one of the two Conservative leadership contenders will in the coming week have a pop at “greedy” (financially prudent) universities filling up on international students (in line with the government’s own strategy) rather than admitting the best of our young people (at a loss, due to government spending decisions).

Your flexible friend

Universities will be urged to be flexible, and will – as they do every year – admit many students holding firm or insurance offers that do not quite make the grades required. Offer making is a very subtle science – admissions offices have a very nuanced idea of just how many students offered a place with A, A, B will actually get those grades, and the “lower than expected” 2022 grades (if that prediction comes to pass) simply means that more of this flexibility will be used to recruit the “right” number of home undergraduates for a given course.

Universities are generally happier to recruit people who have accepted their offer as their firm or insurance choice. They prefer to take a student that has already committed to the course and campus who had a bad exam day if the alternative is a clearing student who is more likely to drop out of the course. And we do need to bear in mind that Ofqual reckons some A level results are accurate (whatever that means) to a grade in either direction – so a B could “really” be a C, or an A depending on who marked it (there’s a whole section on how rare this is in this letter to the Commons Education Committee, but it is a thing).

Students sitting A levels in 2022 saw disruption from Covid-19 in 2019-20 (while they were sitting GCSEs) and 2020-21 (in the all-important first year of A level study). Teachers, in predicting grades – and university admissions offices, in making determinations about what predicted and actual grades may “mean” in particular cases – will have endeavoured to build this into their thinking. The blunt instrument that is the traditional exam will not (though exam boards have done their best with advance exam coverage information, revision guidance, and formula sheets) – yet another reason why post-qualification admissions (PQA) in a system with high-stakes exams at age 18 as the principal of admissions is possibly the stupidest recurring idea in education policy.

Weak signals

For many subjects, Higher and Advanced Higher performance in Scotland this year were perhaps closer to 2019 (and further from 2021) than anticipated. However, on results day 72.3 per cent of 18 year old Scottish domiciled applicants had been placed on their firm choice course. Other than 2021 (which doesn’t work as a data point in this series because last year SQA and JCQ results happened on the same day), this is the highest proportion and number of placed students on record – ten percentage points above the pre-pandemic trends.

This isn’t students lowering expectations either – higher tariff providers took far more Scottish 18 year old than the pre-pandemic trend. Some of this will be down to demographics (though the effect is less pronounced in Scotland), but it is clear – at least – that lower-than-expected results haven’t caused those problems.

Of course, UCAS data in Scotland is far from perfect (it ignores, for instance, admissions to articulated courses via FE colleges). And the Scottish system is increasingly diverging from the rest of the UK. But results here do give me some hope that results day on Thursday will be less calamitous than predicted.

And that’s what UCAS and Ofqual are suggesting too – a letter, released on Sunday, attempts to calm some of the wilder speculation we’ve seen in the press.

A level and vocational results were released to students at 8.00am on Thursday 18 August. Wonkhe’s coverage of results is now available.

7 responses to “What to expect at this week’s A level results day

  1. The one aspect that is missing here is the blatant grade inflation that some schools encouraged with their teacher assessed grades in order to gain a perceived competitive advantage. There is one school in our area which was traditionally near the bottom of the school tables for results, and suddenly it had 61% of A level pupils getting A*-A. Even though tables weren’t published, the schools were still allowed to publish their data, and when parents looked around for A levels, many would think this was the best performing school in the area.

    Did that school have a lot of pupils who would do better than elsewhere under a different assessment system, or did the school leadership see an easy route to improving their financial situation?

    Unfortunately that behaviour has implications for the many students with inflated grades who were then accepted into university courses they may not have been prepared for. The pupils at that school may see a larger than average drop in performance this year – also not in their interest if many more miss university places.

    The “traditional” system wasn’t perfect, but I would argue that even though it had some advantages, the teacher assessed grades from last two years was even worse.

  2. You report 788,125 A level entries in 2022 but this is a qualification count. There were 267,000 A level entrants (students) aged under 19 in 2021 and presumably still less than 300,000 this year. Interesting to compare this with the 458,950 applicants to UCAS, many of whom have vocational, technical and access qualifications. The reduction in grades in 2022 won’t just happen for A level students and the impact on HE progression may be bigger for those on other routes

    1. well said! English politicians at least (with exceptions for party leadership contenders seeking votes) seem to focus on the ‘gold standard’ of 2-3 A-levels, ignoring baccalaureate or other broader options …

  3. To say ” … yet another reason why post-qualification admissions (PQA) in a system with high-stakes exams at age 18 as the principal of admissions is possibly the stupidest recurring idea in education policy” is incredibly condescending. Perhaps make more of an effort to break this down first before throwing out broad judgements such as these?

    1. Do search out “PQA” on Wonkhe – we’ve been through this issue several times on the site in the last 12 months or so and I didn’t feel like this article needed to recap all that.

      1. Thanks I have done and it seems Wonkhe has changed its position on PQA, but I prefer Sunday Blake’s balanced post of today on clearing to yours above.

        1. We don’t have a “Wonkhe” position on PQA. I’m really not a fan (for what I think are sound, data-driven reasons), other writers have different views and different reasons to back them up. You’ll find the full spectrum of opinion in our back catalogue – with my analysis among them.

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