This week, A level exam grades are again big news in the UK. For the second year, special measures have led to exam grades for students who are finishing school and heading to university or straight into the world of work being awarded by new provisions due to Covid, where studying and the usual exams themselves have not operated in any sort of normal way.

This year’s statistics for England based students taking ‘A levels’ paints a dramatic picture. A smooth and gradual increasing trend over the last two decades is followed by a sharp uplift in the percentage of students getting top grades for the last two years with this year showing its own further jump up in grade achievements.

We’ve all been there….

What does this mean, and is it a bad thing?

Clearly not for the thousands of mostly happy students as they celebrate with friends and family. And certainly, few people will begrudge them getting good grades and doing well after the difficult and challenging time they have all experienced during the pandemic.

Reasons to be cheerful

But the immediate impact will be on university places and entrants. Typically, universities have to offer firm offers earlier in the year to students applying for places, based on grades they expected to attain. Offers are calculated based on usual standards to ensure the correct number of the best students will take up the available places. This year, there will be more students qualifying than the normal data will have predicted and this means many students will be encouraged to move or delay when and where they study. But despite this, many institutes will be overburdened with increased numbers of students who they will be obliged to accept and welcome.

Looking back over a longer time frame, it is clear that grade percentages and the number of students going to university have changed dramatically since the 1970s, 80s and even 90s when these numbers had held fairly steady since the 50s when the current A-Level exam was established in England. For employers, the effect of this gradual rise in grades and increase in numbers has been that the value of a university degree has changed, and the numbers of graduates in the wider population of people entering the workforce is a far bigger proportion.

But whilst the issue of ‘grade inflation’ will always feed spirited discussion and debate, the truth is perhaps that it doesn’t matter as much as we might think. Grades and attainment are relative and the university admissions system, by definition, will adjust and adapt to the population of students coming through, meaning that students will begin their degrees, study and graduate and each year, employers will naturally select from the best talent they can find.

Has Covid brought an end to the ‘bad day’ factor?

Life can change in a moment, and exam performance can prove to be one of those moments. Typically, in any year, there will be students who perform to their potential, a few who will do better than expected, and quite a few more who may fail to deliver to their true capability. Exam conditions, with all of the stress and pressure through the build-up and into the sitting or the papers, inevitably mean that some people will just have a bad day. This feeds into the results and the statistical spread of achievement, and there will always be winners as well as losers on the day. 

For now at least, Covid has changed this, and results are coming from simulated exam conditions, combined with school or teacher supervised assessments. Under these circumstances, it is unlikely that many will dramatically over-achieve against their true potential or capability.


More significantly, it is probably true that far less students will dramatically underperform, with an arguably better and ‘kinder’ assessment environment. Taking away the instances of the catastrophic ‘bad day’ which sadly always affects a proportion of exam takers when the conditions are formal and stressful, is likely to be a significant factor in the sharp upturn in average grades seen here.

And as many students are voicing with these results now in, perhaps that is a good thing and actually better. A method of assessing ability and performance where there isn’t such extreme stress and anxiety as with formal examination conditions is arguably a more sensible and fair way to run an exam system where such a lot rests on the results.

What next?

In the UK, there is now a clear problem which needs addressing as grades levels have rocketed upwards, and this ultimately will lead to a correction. Whether this comes from a return to a normalizing of results to maintain usual grade spread, with a return to lower average grades, or a toughening of standards and harder questions, or a reinvention of the exams and qualifications, it is yet to be seen. There are sociological issues at play also with relative increases in average grades varying significantly between state and privately funded independent schools. It is not yet clear what factors have lead to this discrepancy although the different way schools have adapted and managed teaching and assessments through Covid are likely to be one of the key ones.

Image from Reform UK’s study – A degree of uncertainty: an investigation into grade inflation in university

A similar pattern exists at undergraduate degree level in the UK with classes of final degree as students complete university courses trending upwards over recent decades in the UK. A recent study by Reform UK found that whereas the average percentage of people graduating in the 1990s with a first class honours degree (a “First”) was 7%, in 2017 this proportion had risen to as high as 45% at Imperial College in London in 2017.

Taking a global view

There is little discussion of this issue internationally currently, which is perhaps surprising as this annual debate starts again here in the UK. In France with the baccalaureate or in the USA with APs, how have average results evolved, over the same period? Increasingly, as international mobility for those studying and entering work continues to increase steadily, this debate will move to be a global one.

The longer-term impact of this will be on employers and in turn on these same students when they find themselves trying to enter the job market for the first time. Employers and recruiters will need to remain in touch with and be sensitive to the important differences between grade attainment, capability and performance, as well as global variations in education and qualifications.

Reputation is king

Inevitably, businesses and recruiters will continue to work on and develop their own selection processes and criteria. The focus will continue to be on outside interests, practical experience, “soft skills” including attitude and presentation as well as technical or “hard skills” and the ability in many cases to deliver through bespoke recruitment assessments. 

The end result of this for employers is that the standing and reputation of education institutes themselves, whether schools or universities, will remain as perhaps the dominant factor alongside and perhaps ahead of grade attainment. And for students still looking to sit their exams and make choices about where to study, these reputations should remain at the top of their list when they make those oh so difficult but often life changing decisions.