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Top A-level results fell by the biggest drop on record as the overall pass rate hit its lowest level in 15 years.
The Ucas website crashed as hundreds of thousands of students across the country received their grades on Thursday, causing chaos for those hoping to secure a place at university.
It comes as the 19,000 students who were not accepted rushed to clear places after latest figures showed the number of students accepted into UK courses had fallen by 2.6% on Last year.
The Department of Education has confirmed that the drop in top A-level grades of almost 10 percentage points from last year is the biggest on record.
Ministers and the exams regulator in England were aiming to return grades this year similar to 2019, with the Education Secretary insisting the latest figures from UCAS illustrated how the UK government was ‘right to get the grading system back to normal’.
National figures show the proportion of A-level entries with the highest grades is down 9.2 percentage points from 2022. Just over a quarter (27.2%) of entries to the Kingdom United have achieved an A or A* grade this year, up from 36.4% last year.
That was even higher than in 2019 – the last year summer exams were taken before the pandemic – when 25.4% of entries achieved A or A* grades.
But the proportion of entries rated A* to E has fallen to 97.3% this year, which is lower than both 2022 (98.4%) and the pre-pandemic year of 2019 (97. 6%) – and is the lowest overall pass rate since 2008 when it stood at 97.2%.
The figures, published by the Joint Council for Qualifications (JCQ), cover A-level entries from students in England, Wales and Northern Ireland.
Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), described a “sharp drop” in top A-Level results. He said: “The proportion of students achieving top A-Level marks A’s have fallen sharply this year, not because of underperformance, but because the grading system has been adjusted in the wake of the pandemic so that the grade distribution in England is similar to 2019.
He added: “Whatever the reason, however, it will look like a murderous experience for many students, as well as for schools and colleges that will have seen a sharp drop in top grades over the past three years.”
Amid warnings from exams regulator Ofqual that this year’s A-level results in England will be lower than last year, it has also been suggested that school leavers face more competition for university places this year due to an increase in the number of 18-year-olds in the population and international demand.
The potential for this cohort of students to have higher expectations, having failed to sit GCSE exams and receiving teacher-assessed grades amid the pandemic, has further fueled fears of disappointment, which led to record GCSE results in 2021.
Students received their A-level results and logged on to the ucas website for the status of their college applications as of 8 a.m. Thursday, as the organization released its first numbers.
There was a 2.6% drop in the number of UK students who got their first choice of university or college compared to last year. Of those who have had a decision on their candidacy so far, 79% have secured a place at their first choice, while 81% have done so in 2022 when exams were reintroduced. In 2019, the last time the ranking arrangements were the same as this year, the figure stood at 74% on results day.
Overall, 414,940 applicants secured a university or college place, down from 425,830 last year (-2.6%), but up from 408,960 in 2019 ( +1.5%). For UK 18-year-olds, 230,600 were accepted, down from 238,090 in 2022 (-3.1%) but up from 199,370 in 2019 (+15.7%).
A Ucas spokesperson said that at the time of the release of the results, “a small number of students may have been affected by the slow website, but this was quickly resolved,” adding: ” All students were able to access their decisions via email and we can see that three quarters of applicants opened their emails.
In response to the organisation’s figures, Gillian Keegan told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: ‘79% of students receiving their results today got their first choice university. And that’s up from 74% in 2019… So hopefully this will lead everyone to realize that we were right to get the grading system back to normal.
She also said this year’s A-levels cohort had “a lot to deal with” and showed “incredible resilience” as they congratulated them on their grades.
covid-19 led to an increase in top A-level grades in 2020 and 2021, with results based on teacher assessments instead of exams.
The Department for Education said the years between 2019 and 2021 have therefore seen the largest two-year increase in A grades and above, so it is “understandable that this year has seen a sharp decrease as we return to the 2019 levels”.
Overall, the proportion of UK admissions with the highest A* grade this year fell by 5.7 percentage points to 8.9% from 14.6% in 2022, but is higher than when it was 7.7% in 2019.
Boys have moved ahead of girls at the top tier this year after female entries have been in the lead for the past three years, with A* grades at 9.1% for the former compared to 8.8% for the latter.
Girls continued to outperform boys at A* and A levels, but the gender gap has narrowed further this year.
A total of 3,820 students in England alone have achieved three A* grades, according to separate figures from exams regulator Ofqual.
That’s down from 8,570 last year, but up from 2,785 in 2019.
In Wales, the results are expected to be “largely halfway” between those awarded in 2022 – first-year students took exams after the pandemic – and 2019.
In Northern Ireland, results are expected to return to pre-pandemic levels next year.
Many A-level students in Wales and Northern Ireland have been given advance information on what to expect in their exam papers this summer, but students in England have not received the same support.
Ofqual said it built protection into the grading process in England this year to recognize the disruption students faced, which should have enabled a student to achieve the grade they would have received before the pandemic, although the quality of its work is somewhat lower due to the disruptions.