18 August 2023

A Level playing field? Let’s hope this year marks the end of the scandal of grade inflation


A Level results day is always emotional, involving elation for some students and disappointment for others. But yesterday’s was particularly difficult, as the proportion of pupils receiving top grades plummeted compared to the previous few years.

The Government has said that this is part of an effort to ‘get back to normal’ by returning grades to their pre-pandemic level.

The problem for many schools, and their pupils, is that because of previous mistakes, ‘normal’ is not something that is easily recognisable. The answer depends not on only when you took your exams, but also where you took them. Northern Irish and Welsh students had better results than their English peers, not because they are brighter, but because the grading in those countries was more lenient.

Distortions like this, which were known about in advance and could have been resolved centrally, further embed problems for universities and employers. Employers assessing job applications from the current cohort will have to take in a mind-bending number of contextual factors if they are going to be fair.

Many of these issues are of the Government’s own making. The grade inflation which was introduced into the assessment system – first in 2020, through Centre Assessed Grades, and then in 2021, through the free-for-all of Teacher Assessed Grades has now been matched by an inevitable and wholly necessary decline in the number of top grades.

In 2019 the number of A*/As was 25.4%; now, in England, it is 26.5% (vs 36.9% in 2022).

Those geographical disparities are still evident, however. In Wales, the number of students getting top grades is 34%, and in Northern Ireland it is 37.5%. Whether or not universities make allowances for such significant differences remains unclear, but their current track record in this area is patchy to say the least.

Many schools will now be dealing with students who are unhappy with their grades because they have missed out on their first-choice university (even though their teacher-assessed GCSEs suggested they were destined for high grades). In practical terms that suggests there could be a record number of appeals, putting further strain on an assessment system that is trying to recover its credibility as well as its rigour.

Only when you look closely at the grade thresholds do you see how difficult it is to move upwards into those top bands. For my subject, English Literature, to get an A* in one component you need a raw score (out of 40) of 37 or above. These tight bands, coupled with the threat that in any appeal marks can go down, leaves students torn between relying on advice from teachers, risking getting worse grades, or settling for a second or third choice university. It is on a matter of a few marks, and the vagaries of a disrupted process, that their fates are sealed.  

For those students with the resources, such as those in independent schools, or state schools with long-established experience in getting students through Ucas clearing, the final outcomes may well be better than they looked yesterday morning. But it is students from disadvantaged backgrounds, or from families on low incomes, who stand to be disproportionately affected by this year’s grade ‘deflation’. The gap between the advantaged and the disadvantaged was already made considerably worse by Teacher Assessed Grades where teacher bias, among other factors, negatively impacted the results of the most vulnerable. The post-Covid recovery programme – so eviscerated by then Chancellor Rishi Sunak that its ‘tsar’, Sir Kevan Collins, ended up resigning  remains unconnected and underfunded.

Those of us working in schools are acutely aware of the many issues, from academic achievement to mental ill health, that are not being adequately addressed at a national and coordinated level. We kicked the grade inflation can down the road three years ago, now we have to pick it up. But the social inequalities that these decisions have embedded are waiting for the next government to inherit – and at probably greater cost than the £15bn that Collins originally asked for.

All this is for the future, and much of it is doom-laden. We should end with praise for this country’s 18-year-olds. Many of them have achieved great things. This cohort came through lockdown only to have uncertainty surrounding assessment and grading hanging over them. Not only that but they have also been hit by ongoing industrial action by their teachers which has resulted in even more ‘learning loss’ – a ‘special consideration’ not taken into account by any of the examination boards.

They should be congratulated on what they have overcome and hope that they are not forced to show such resilience if they move into higher education. Let us try to ensure that this A Level results day marks the end of the scandalous disruption and confusion they have had to endure.

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David James is deputy head of an independent school in London.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.