Academics’ faith in A levels plummets post-pandemic

Low opinion of key exams connected to ‘disastrous’ decisions during Covid and a lack of understanding over how grades are awarded

June 2, 2023
People ride a rollercoaster at Thorpe Park to illustrate Academics’ faith in A levels plummets post-pandemic
Source: Getty

Academics in England increasingly believe A-level standards are falling and the pivotal examinations do not prepare students for work or further study.

The lingering effects of what happened during the pandemic – when most exams were cancelled and replaced with teacher-assessed grades – and a lack of understanding over how marks are awarded and maintained has contributed to the increased disillusionment, experts said.

A recent annual survey by the Office of Qualifications and Examinations Regulation (Ofqual) highlighted the negative views of academics, who were polled alongside other interest groups on their opinions of the 2022 examinations; the first year exams returned following the Covid hiatus.

Of the 250 academics who took part, 35 per cent said A-level standards are not maintained year-on-year – up from only 20 per cent two years previously.

The sector is the most sceptical of the examinations of all stakeholders – including the general public (24 per cent), young people (18 per cent), parents (18 per cent), headteachers (13 per cent), teachers (15 per cent) and employers (28 per cent). The figures also show that just half of academics think the marking of A levels is accurate.

The impact of the pandemic has affected academic performance at all levels of education, including A level, according to Michelle Meadows, associate professor in educational assessment at the University of Oxford.

“In the interests of fairness, the standard expected of A-level students has been adjusted. Academics are quite right to identify that standards have not been maintained in recent years.”

However, she added that a lot has been demanded of students in recent years so it was perhaps understandable that taking A levels had not prepared undergraduates for university as much as academics might like.

Mary Richardson, professor of educational assessment at UCL, agreed that many of the concerns were connected to the pandemic – particularly following some of the “disastrous” decisions by the government during that period.

“It really damaged confidence across the board because there was a sense that some students got into university who in another world might not have got the grades.”

She said many academics have low opinions of A levels because they do not understand how they are awarded or maintained – they just see the end output.

“There needs to be a better understanding in terms of admissions, because the whole process has changed significantly,” she added.

“We as academics have very little to do with the admissions process now, we rarely have any input there.”

A fifth of academics said the end-of-school exams are not good preparation for further study and just a quarter think they are good preparation for work.

Matt Finn, senior lecturer in human geography at the University of Exeter, said the increased difficulty of A levels, and the scaling approach used, means students can get good grades but still lack mastery over a significant amount of knowledge and skills.

For example, a student may progress to university with a high tariff score of a B, he said, but may have answered nearly half the questions they were assessed on incorrectly.

Dr Finn said A levels are assessed in quite different ways from university and what may be rewarded at school does not align with what is expected in higher education.

Overall, 83 per cent of academics still believe that A levels should be seen as trusted qualifications – up slightly year-on-year.

Register to continue

Why register?

  • Registration is free and only takes a moment
  • Once registered, you can read 3 articles a month
  • Sign up for our newsletter
Please Login or Register to read this article.

Related articles

Reader's comments (5)

This seems to have been going on since I did my A-Levels in 1981. It is certainly the case that some students that I have had in my tutor groups with A grade A-levels did not appear to possess the knowledge and skills that would be expected.
There is grade inflation not only in A level but across the board in Universities. We have far too many students walking out with firsts some of which pre covid would have just go a 2.2 or a low 2.1 its a joke. The Universities have bent over backward to progress students because they need the money (why kick them out in year 1 if you can get further money by keeping them in the system for years 2 and 3??). So a we try to keep the lowest common denominator in the Uni's and that means the others get inflated upwards. To be honest it is a national scandal, lecturers cant be bothered to fail students as the amount of admin associated with it is just too much and you will be told your prospects of promotion are low because your failure rate is too high.
Standards in music and sport are measured and maintained, not questioned. Yet there is a 'cultural cringe' in the humanities, where we are willing to accept semi-literacy and a list of excuses for fear of appearing elitist. If we really want to be inclusive lets have a written national university entrance exam, focused on literacy and numeracy, with support outside the university system to help disadvantaged students reach the threshold level. If overseas students have to pass a standard language test, why not home students?
I'm not so sure that they are missing the key knowledge from their Alevel specialisms to be able to handle the educational level at university, though certainly there has always been a big uphill battle to fill the gaps when not all new students have done the same Levels (particularly in science subjects where some may have done biology and some may have done chemistry and some may have done both but all need bringing to the same level by the end of first year). What they are clearly missing though, are skills and attributes to cope with further study that college and 6th form should absolutely be supporting and building. I have noticed a huge increase in students unable to cope with lower grades, possibly because they have, as the article suggests, achieved grades at a level without having necessarily met the standard of a few years ago. They seem more and more unable to search for information themselves or to follow instructions or guidance. And resilience now seems an alien concept to many new entrants to university. And this all puts universities in a position where they are now having to do everything that should have been accomplished in the time between 16 and 18. Only now due to the sector's perception of students as customers rather than learners and the absence of an instilled feeling of the need to attend university at all, we are at a massive disadvantage to accomplish all that in the time that we have them for.
Agree with all the above. I would add that for me, the overarching factors driving attainment and expectation are increasingly now set by society outside HE. Obviously there is interplay between the two, but our current cultures promoting lots of soapy feelgood tripe like 'live your best life' and everything being excellent, have locked us into this dismal dystopia. In many ways, we have become fiction factories selling degrees to as wide a variety of students as is viable.