2023 is the second year of exams after the disruption due to the COVID-19 pandemic and, for A level candidates, these will be the first external exams they’ve sat since primary school, having received assessed grades for their GCSEs. Last year, 2022, was treated as a transition year, with grades broadly between those seen in 2019 and 2021.
For 2023, the guidance from Ofqual was that grades would return to their 2019 levels, meaning there would be a fall in the number of top grades. However, as students sitting their A levels in 2023 experienced lost learning due to the pandemic, there would be some protection for students. In other words, grades would not fall below 2019, even if actual exam performance was down.
Despite these protections, disadvantaged students are likely to be worst affected by the grade deflation, as they experienced a greater loss of learning both during and after the pandemic, as outlined in this National Audit Office report.
There are further reasons why this year’s cohort is likely to be unusual. Those sitting their A levels at 18 will have received teacher assessed grades for their GCSEs if they sat these as expected in 2021. As a result, they will have received higher grades, on average, than they may otherwise have received had they sat exams. As lower GCSE grades are a barrier to progressing on to A levels, this means students who historically may have chosen other post-16 options have instead taken A levels.
This blog explores the initial JCQ 2023 A level data for England and you can use the tools below to explore trends over time and subject grade breakdowns. As expected, there have been falls in the proportions of entries achieving the top grades, with grade distributions returning to 2019 levels.
Grade breakdown over time
As expected, overall outcomes are in line with Ofqual’s intentions, with outcomes falling from previous years to be more in line with 2019 levels.
Explore changes over time in our interactive tool
NB. You can compare 2023 directly with prior years by using the “Year-on-year Comparison” tab
A few key findings
- As expected, the proportion of entries across all subjects achieving A* and A grades fell markedly from 2022 to 2023, while the proportions achieving grades U – C all rose. However, in comparison to 2019, students were still slightly more likely to have achieved the top grades (i.e. an A*, A or B) and less likely to have achieved a C or a D.
- A B grade remains the most likely outcome for students, at around a quarter (26.2%) of all subject entries. However, in a reversal of the trend seen in 2021 and 2022 and a return to what was seen in 2019, students are once again more likely to achieve a C grade than an A grade.
- Excluding other modern languages and other sciences, further maths was the subject where the proportion of A* grades was furthest above 2019 levels. In 2023, 28.3% of entries achieved an A*, compared to 24.0% in 2019. This may reflect the fact that this was the subject where the proportion of entries achieving A* grades was furthest from 2019 levels in 2022.
- General Studies was the only subject to see a fall in the proportion of entries achieving an A* grade in 2023 compared to 2019. However, there were nine subjects which saw a fall in the proportion of entries achieving an A grade in comparison to 2019.
- These were Design and Technology, Classical subjects, Law, Geography, Sociology, Economics, Other sciences, General studies and ICT.
A level grade breakdown by subject
There have been changes in the subject choices made by A level students over time. In 2023, mathematics was the most popular subject choice, at 11.3% of all entries. This was followed by Psychology at 9.7% of all entries, and Biology at 8.5%. Psychology has also been rising in popularity in recent years, with the number of entries 24% higher in 2023 compared to 2019.
Explore this year’s A level grades by subject in our interactive tool
A few key findings
- While entries across all subjects saw a fall in the proportion of entries achieving A* or A grades from 2022, these proportions remained above 2019 levels.
- At 28.3%, further maths had the highest proportion of entries receiving an A* grade. However, this had fallen by 11.4% from 39.7% in 2022.
- Modern foreign languages also had a strong performance, with more than 10% of entries achieving an A* grade in Spanish, French, German and Other Modern Languages.
- In contrast, just 2.4% of entries in English Language achieved an A* and over a third (35.0%) achieved a D.