A-level results 2023: top grades fall but remain above pre-pandemic levels, with drop steepest in England

The fall in top A-level grades was steeper in England than in Wales and Northern Ireland.
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The number of top A-level grades is down on last year but still remains above pre-pandemic levels, national figures reveal.

Students across the country received their A-level results this Thursday (17 August), in a year when ministers and the exams regulator in England warned that grading would return to what it was in 2019 - after record results were achieved in 2020 and 2021 when marks were based on teacher assessments. This means the fall in grades has nothing to do with students’ individual performances, but is instead down to a change in marking.

Across the UK, 27.2% of sixth-formers were awarded an A* or A this year, which is a drop of 9.2 percentage points on last year when 36.4% received the top grades. This is still higher than in 2019, though - the last year that summer exams were taken before the pandemic - when 25.4% achieved an A* or A.

However, the overall pass rate - the proportion of entries graded A* to E - has plummeted to 97.3%, which is the lowest it has been since 2008. In 2022, it stood at 98.4%, and in 2019, it was 97.6%.

The figures, published by the Joint Council for Qualifications (JCQ), cover entries from pupils in England, Wales, and Northern Ireland - but not Scotland. For 2023, they show that the drop in top grades was the steepest in England - falling from 35.9% in 2022 to 26.5% in 2023.

The fall was more gradual in Wales, from 40.9% to 34%, and in Northern Ireland, from 44% to 37.5%. This was always expected to happen, as their exams regulators said they do not plan to return to pre-pandemic grading until 2024 - whereas the aim in England was to do so this year.

Students at Brighton Girls school in Brighton, East Sussex, receive their A-level results. Date: Thursday August 17, 2023. PA Photo. Credit: Gareth Fuller/PA WireStudents at Brighton Girls school in Brighton, East Sussex, receive their A-level results. Date: Thursday August 17, 2023. PA Photo. Credit: Gareth Fuller/PA Wire
Students at Brighton Girls school in Brighton, East Sussex, receive their A-level results. Date: Thursday August 17, 2023. PA Photo. Credit: Gareth Fuller/PA Wire

In terms of university places, a similar pattern has been followed. UCAS figures show that the number of applicants accepted on to UK degree courses has fallen this year but is still up on 2019 – the year before the pandemic.

The admissions service said that 79% of 18-year-old applicants from the UK have secured their first choice, which is down from 81% in 2022 but up from 74% in 2019.

Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), described a “sharp fall” in the highest A-level results. He said: “The proportion of students achieving the top A-level grades has fallen sharply this year, not as a result of underperformance, but because the grading system has been adjusted in the wake of the pandemic so that the distribution of grades in England is similar to 2019.”

He described this shift as a “return to normality” - after the pandemic “necessitated” the use of different approaches to grading, such as teacher assessment. “Whatever the rationale, however,” the education expert continued, “it will feel like a bruising experience for many students, as well as schools and colleges, which will have seen a sharp dip in top grades compared to the past three years.

“It is important to remember that these students also suffered the disruption of the pandemic, and this will have impacted particularly on those from disadvantaged backgrounds.”

Mr Barton also added: “We would urge students who are disappointed by their grades not to panic but to talk to their teachers about the options available to them and we wish all the young people receiving their results today every success for the future.”

Richard Osborne (left) and Rhys Marjoram receive their A-level results at Langley School in Loddon, Norfolk. Picture date: Thursday August 17, 2023. Credit: Joe Giddens / PA WireRichard Osborne (left) and Rhys Marjoram receive their A-level results at Langley School in Loddon, Norfolk. Picture date: Thursday August 17, 2023. Credit: Joe Giddens / PA Wire
Richard Osborne (left) and Rhys Marjoram receive their A-level results at Langley School in Loddon, Norfolk. Picture date: Thursday August 17, 2023. Credit: Joe Giddens / PA Wire

In England, exams regulator Ofqual previously warned that this year’s A-level results would be lower than last year, saying they would instead be similar to those in 2019 as part of efforts to return to pre-pandemic grading.

In Wales, examiners said results were expected to be “broadly midway” between those awarded in 2022 – the first year students sat exams following the pandemic – and those awarded in 2019. In Northern Ireland, results were expected to return to pre-pandemic levels in 2024.

Many students in Wales and Northern Ireland were also given advance information about topics they could expect in their A-level exam papers this summer, but pupils in England were not given the same support. However, Ofqual did say that it had built “protection” into the grading process in order to recognise the disruption this cohort had faced.

Those receiving their A-levels this year did not sit GCSE exams due to the pandemic, and have also had their learning disrupted over the past few months due to teacher strikes.

The statistics released by the JCQ also revealed that boys have pulled ahead of girls when it comes to A*s - with 9.1% for the former and 8.8% for the latter. When A*s and As are taken into account girls are still ahead of boys, as has been the pattern for the last few years, but the gap has narrowed.

Meanwhile, according to separate figures from Ofqual, a total of 3,820 students across England scored three A*s. This is down from 8,570 last year, but up from 2,785 in 2019.

Margaret Farragher, chief executive of the JCQ, said: “This year’s results recognise the fantastic achievements of students across the country. They have worked incredibly hard throughout the pandemic period to achieve these well-earned grades. The 2023 results show that students are well equipped to continue their studies or move into apprenticeships or employment. ”

Pupils in Scotland received their results last week and the Scottish Qualifications Authority figures showed that the pass rate for Highers was down from last year but it remained above 2019.

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