After the grade inflation of 2020 and 2021, A-level results have come down from their teacher accessed highs during the pandemic but the proportion of As and A*s are still up over 10% over 2019.
Regional disparities seem to persist in these results presenting an obvious target for the Government’s “Levelling Up” agenda.
The current numbers from Ofqual show that in London and the South East over 39% of students have come away from their A-levels with an A or an A* grade, in the North East the figure is only 30.8%. This disparity represents a quarter fewer students achieving the top grades and is an indication of inequality more generally.
As Mayor of Greater Manchester, Andy Burnham said at Chamber’s recent “Levelling Up the Conversation” event: “The facts are that the postcode that people are born in still pretty much determines how long they live and what they do.”
Broken down by local authority area, the 2019 results show that regional disparities are reflected and are more extreme at more local levels. The average grades for all level 3 students in Reading and Buckinghamshire in 2019 was a B, while in Middlesborough and Salford the average was a C-.
The gap between state-sector schools and independent (including fee paying schools) is also stark with the rate of As and A*s for independent schools approaching 60% while state schools are just over 30%.
These statistics are hard to analyse due to the rapid grade inflation during the pandemic which was brought on by teachers accessing their own students in place of examination which was impossible due to Covid precautions as you can see on the below graph.
“Today’s results are higher than those of 2019, and – as we have always said – lower than in 2021, when there was a different method of assessment. It makes sense to compare this year’s results with those of 2019 when exams were last sat. I felt strongly that it would not have been right to go straight back to pre-pandemic grading in one go but accept that we do need to continue to take steps back to normality. These results overall, coming as they do broadly midway between 2021 and 2019, represent a staging post on that journey.”Chief Regulator of Ofqual, Dr Jo Saxton
A-levels are most practically a way to avoid entrance exams for all universities. They are also supposed to inform employers of the aptitude of new hires, teach children valuable skills, assess their work from their last two years of study and to an extent rank their abilities across their peer group and across years.
In many ways the system is failing. The most selective universities such as Oxford and Cambridge give out conditional offers based on interviews and tests. Employers cannot help but be baffled by the rapid grade inflation during Covid which will render comparisons between cohorts useless if indeed many employers even look at the grades received before hiring. Whether children are learning valuable skills and whether they are learning more than in the past is of course completely unknowable as the tests are so different over time. In accessing education policy, it is probably better to look at the UK’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) scores.
Changes to A-levels and their results are politically fraught because the most important aspect of the system is to rank people’s ability and set their lives on different trajectories following their last year at school. Those who get into Oxbridge are unlikely to share many of the hardships of those who do not gain any A-level qualifications. The relative status of many careers and the attendant salary expectations are highly correlated with university attendance. The first formative years of a young person’s career or indeed the connections they make at university will often set a pattern that for good or for ill will determine their economic circumstances indefinitely.
There’s a lot more to levelling up than ensuring A-level grades are the same across regions, but it would be a good start.