Smiles, hugs and tears on A-level results day

Butterflies: Last year, the proportion of A-levels marked A or A* fell slightly by 0.7%. © Getty

Do exam results matter? For students receiving their results, A-levels may seem like the line between success and failure. But one top school says an “all-round” education is more important.

Today, after weeks of nervous waiting, hundreds of thousands of students across the country discover their A-level results. For some, there will be elation and celebrations as they look forward to their next steps at university. Others may be feeling disappointed and be considering their options.

This year, there was an added element of uncertainty. The new two-year, more challenging A-levels have been implemented across 11 subjects, after being introduced in 13 subjects last year. Modular exams and coursework were all but eliminated under the new qualifications and, as AS-levels no longer count towards the final grade, many students faced summer exams worth 100% of their A-level.

Against expectations, students were awarded the highest proportion of As and A*s since 2012, although examiners dismissed the rise as “extremely marginal”. However, the proportion of students in England gaining C grades or above fell back, driven by a weaker performance among girls.

The dramatic changes were unveiled in 2013 by former Education Secretary Michael Gove, who believed exams in the UK were no longer “fit for purpose”. Some experts worried that grade inflation was rendering A-levels worthless.

It used to be very different. Between 1963 and 1987, the proportion of pupils to receive each grade was fixed. Only the top 10% could get an A, regardless of the mark they achieved. While this made it easier to differentiate between students, it also meant standards could vary wildly from year to year.

When this rule was scrapped, the number of A grades rose sharply. Now, roughly one in four A-levels are awarded at an A or A*.

Not everyone is happy with the system. Rugby, one of the country’s oldest and wealthiest public schools, is pulling out of the “flawed” A-level rankings in order to “focus on a broader definition of success than the acquisition of knowledge and passing of exams”.

Do exam results matter?

Jumping through hoops

Not as much as you think, argue some. The true goal of education is to produce well-rounded individuals. There are other ways of being intelligent outside of those that are measurable with rigid marking schemes. Besides, bad exam results aren’t the end of the world. There’s always an alternative path waiting to be discovered.

Of course, say others. You should always try to secure the best results you can because academic achievement undeniably keeps options open further down the line. If you want to go to university, your A-level results will be the deciding factor, and even if you don’t, the focus and thinking skills required to buckle down for exams are useful throughout life.

You Decide

  1. How important are exam results?
  2. If you failed your exams, what would you do?


  1. Research how A-level results have changed over time and possible reasons why. In groups, discuss whether you think exams have gotten easier, or if there are other factors at play.
  2. Write a short story about a character who has received disappointing A-level results, but finds an alternative path to the future they want.

Some People Say...

“The day after I was elected, I had my high school grades classified top secret.”

Ronald Reagan

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Rugby School said that annual league tables fail to reflect a “modern all-round education” and accused other schools of manipulating the system by including “easier” subjects or by preventing struggling pupils from sitting exams. State schools have complained that they have to narrow their curriculum away from the arts because traditional subjects are more highly valued in rankings.
What do we not know?
What role unconditional offers may have played in today’s results. As universities compete for students and the funding they bring, almost 68,000 of these offers were made this year, compared with less than 3,000 five years ago. Students with unconditional offers have a guaranteed place at university regardless of their grades, so they may not try as hard in exams.

Word Watch

Students who do not achieve the grades specified by their university may still be accepted. If not, they could enter Clearing in order to secure a free place university.
Modular exams
Previously, exams were split into different units which could be taken in January or the summer. This made it easier to resit exams if a student didn’t achieve what they wanted in a module.
Previously, AS-levels taken in year 12 made up 50% of the final A-level grade, with A2-levels in year 13 constituting the second half. AS-levels still count in Wales and Northern Ireland.
Among girls
Some experts argue that the new A Levels benefit boys because they typically perform better in exams, whereas girls perform more highly in coursework.
Grade inflation
An upward trend in the average grades awarded to students. Some say this is evidence of exams becoming easier, while others think more targeted teaching simple means pupils are better prepared.
A*s were introduced in 2010 with the intention of identifying the highest achieving students. Usually around 8% of students achieve A*s.


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