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The impact of the Covid-19 pandemic since 2020

Pupils taking A levels, Scottish Highers, and Advanced Highers in the summers of 2020 and 2021 experienced significant disruption to their studies due to the Covid-19 pandemic. In response, course curriculums were reduced, and summer exams were cancelled.

In 2021, teacher assessed grades were used to determine A level and Scottish Higher results. This led to another annual increase in the highest grades awarded. In England, 44.3% of A level entries were awarded an A* or A in 2021. This compared with 38.5% in 2020, and 25.2% in 2019.

In 2020, final grades were initially to be awarded based on a moderated algorithm, which would ‘standardise’ grades awarded by teachers to combat grade inflation. Following considerable public pressure and accusations the algorithm was unfair, it was announced pupils would receive whichever was higher: the moderated algorithm grade or a teacher/centre assessed grade.

The number of applications for higher education reached a record level in 2021. Combined with the increase in the number of top grades awarded, many university courses were over-subscribed when unusually high numbers of students met their first choice offers.

Assessment and grading in 2022

2022 was the first year young people have taken exams and assessments in A levels, Scottish Highers, and other post-16 qualifications since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Adaptations were made to exams and coursework to acknowledge the disruption to pupils’ learning. These varied across the UK, but included some course content not being assessed, modifications to practical work and fieldwork, and advance notice on what topics would be examined to assist students with their revision.

Ofqual, the exams regulator in England, said 2022 would be a “transition year” back to lower pre-pandemic grade levels, with results reflecting a “midway point” between 2021 and 2019. This approach was similarly followed in Wales and Northern Ireland.

The Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) said it adopted a more generous approach to grading Scottish Highers and Advanced Highers in 2022 than in a normal year, with results intended to be an “intermediary position” between 2021 and 2019.

A level and Scottish Higher results

The overall A-C pass rate for Scottish Highers was 78.9%, up from pre-pandemic level of 74.8% in 2019, but lower than rates in 2020 and 2021. There was a similar trend in Advanced Highers where the A-C pass rate in 2022 was 81.3%, above the level in 2019 (79.4%) but lower than in 2020 and 2021.

A level results in England, Wales and Northern Ireland in 2022 were better than the last time formal exams were held in 2019, but somewhat below the 2021 results. The proportion of A* grades was 14.6% in 2022 compared to 7.7% in 2019. A*/A grades improved from 25.4% to 36.4% and A*-C grades from 75.9% to 82.6% over the same period.

University admissions in 2022

It was anticipated 2022 would see higher application rates and increased competition for university places due to:

  • continuing demographic change and more 18-year-olds in the population;
  • universities being more circumspect in their offer-making following two years of pandemic-related ‘over recruitment’;
  • a higher number of students choosing to defer their places from 2021;
  • some higher achieving students from 2021 reapplying for the most competitive courses;
  • fewer deferrals to 2023 due to changes to student finance from 2023/24.

On A level results day (18 August), around 375,000 applicants had a place at their first choice university, down from 396,000 on A level results day in 2021, but higher than in 2019, 2020 and any earlier year. This was 54.4% of applicants, lower than the 57.8% in 2021 and rates in 2020 (55.2%) and 2019 (55.7%). A further 51,300 applicants (7.3%) had been accepted at their second/other choice or through clearing and 99,300 (14.5%) were holding an offer. Around 164,000 (23.7%) were free to be placed in clearing or had gone direct to clearing. This number was 9% higher than in 2021 and 24% higher than in 2020.

There were broadly similar trends among UK applicants aged 18 with the proportion placed at their first choice down from 72.7% in 2021 to 65.3% in 2022. The number of these applicants free to be placed in clearing in 2022 was 33% higher than on the equivalent day in 2021 and 44% higher than in 2020.

Analysis of applications 28 days after A level results day (15 September) showed the number of applicants accepted at their second/other choice or through clearing had increased to 117,800. The number placed through clearing was 70,000, a 29% increase on 2021, but lower than numbers in 2020 and 2019. The total number of 18-year-olds with a placed had increased to a new record in 2022. The percentage of 18-year-olds placed by this date fell from 37.9% in 2021 to 37.3% in 2022. The 2022 level was still the second highest figure.

The number of UK 18-year-old applicants accepted at the more prestigious ‘higher tariff’ universities on A level results day 2022 was down by 12%. It increased by 5% in lower and 1% in medium tariff institutions. More students are placed through clearing at lower and middle tariff universities, so their relative positions had changed by 28 days after A level results day. The number placed at higher tariff institutions was 11% lower than on the equivalent date in 2021, while those placed and middle and lower tariff universities increased by 6% and 11% respectively. This meant more UK 18-year-olds were placed at middle than higher tariff universities for the first time since the pandemic.

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