The 3 ‘R’s’ of A levels

There would seem to be three major areas of debate arising from the A Level results. Apologies for the rather clumsy titles, but it was a way of generating the letter R three times.

Reliability. This started before the issue of results and has been a feature of the past too (as well as arising perhaps even more strongly for GCSE examinations). There was, for example, a full page article In the Daily Telegraph in which the author lambasted AQA for its failings with regard to the marking of A Level Drama twelve months ago. The author argued that, not only had the examiners failed to award marks which were deserved, particularly to good candidates, but that also the marks that had been awarded almost entirely reversed the true order of merit. Both OfQual and the Awarding Bodies have been considering this issue and have accepted that there are valid reasons for the concerns that have been expressed. This seems likely to be a matter that is going to continue to be raised.

Relaxing of Requirements. This again preceded the actual issue of results. Unconditional offers from universities have certainly increased both in absolute and relative terms. Their merits and demerits have been much aired of late. They could, of course, be at least a partial explanation of how the perceptions of unreliability have arisen. If they affect the motivation of candidates adversely, they may result in marks and grades being lower than expected by teachers, which might cause those teachers to suspect the marking was faulty. In any event, the process does raise a whole host of questions which need to be investigated and answered.

Reduction of Levels of Grade Boundaries. This is a matter which has been raised before and will, no doubt, also be one which is raised with regard to GCSE results. The sequence seems to be that concerns have been raised about ‘dumbing down’ and new specifications and examinations have been introduced to make the system more ‘rigorous’ and demanding. Not surprisingly, the marks scored by candidates when this occurs tend to fall. At this point, it seems somewhat perverse to be then surprised if the application of a principle of ‘comparable outcomes’ results in the marks needed for any given mark will be lower if what is meant by that principle is that the proportions of the various grades awarded to the cohort taking the examination should remain approximately the same year on year. This is on a par with setting targets requiring everyone to be above the average or that they should exceed their capabilities rather than the expectations of them.

OfQual Guide to AS and A level results for England, 2019.

The key points to note from OfQual:


1. The biggest reforms to general qualifications in a generation are almost complete with the majority of today’s results awarded for reformed A levels.

2. Reformed A levels were awarded for the first time in 19 more subjects this summer (not counting A level maths), bringing the total number of reformed subjects to 44. The new A levels are linear qualifications, with refreshed content, but overall A levels have not been designed to be more demanding. Our focus has been to ensure that standards have been maintained for all qualifications awarded this summer.

3. Overall results in England are slightly lower at grade A and above compared to last year (25.2% in 2019 compared with 26.2% in 2018). This is likely to reflect changes in the A level cohort and students’ subject choices. While the number of 18-year-olds taking A levels in England has decreased by around 0.3% this year, the overall 18-year-old cohort has decreased by just under 3%. This suggests that proportionally more 18-year-olds are taking A levels this year.

4. Entries for reformed AS qualifications in England have dropped by over 50% compared to last summer. This makes it much more difficult to interpret any changes in year-on-year results.

5. The variability in results within centres is generally similar to previous years. Even when there are no changes to qualifications, individual schools and colleges will see variation in their year-on-year results; this is normal.

6. In England, reformed A level maths was awarded to a full cohort of students for the first time this year. In the news story we consider this year’s results and 2018 and 2019 grade boundaries in this subject. We also cover a range of other points such as the average number of A levels a student takes, changes in grade boundaries across all reformed subjects over time, and results in modern foreign languages and science qualifications.

Ofqual have also published a variety of accompanying information, including our interactive analytics:

  • An infographic about this year’s A level results
  • A report on variability in school and college A level results, 2017 to 2019
  • Interactive analytics of variability in school and college A level results, A level outcomes in England and an interactive map of England showing A level results in different subjects by grade and county.

Additional information and help:

Schools Guide and Student Guide contain information for schools, colleges and students, including, for example, details about reviews and appeals.

OfQual have also produced an article - looking ahead to A level results, which included detail on how we maintain standards, our expectations for reviews of marking, and our view on the action taken in response to this year’s A level maths security breach.

They have worked with Liverpool John Moores University and the University of Manchester to produce a guide for students on coping with exam pressure, plus a series of blog posts on text anxiety and how to help students to deal with it.

 For more information contact - [email protected]