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File image of students sitting their A-Level exams. Alamy Stock Photo

Northern Ireland tops A-Level results table but questions raised over different UK standards

Many students in Northern Ireland and Wales were given advance information about topics to expect in exams this summer, but English pupils were not given the same support.

NORTHERN IRELAND HAS topped the table when it comes to the percentage of entries awarded top grades across the UK in this summer’s A-Level exams.

A-Level exams are similar to the Leaving Cert and are typically sat by students prior to entering third-level education.
37.5% of this year’s entries in Northern Ireland were awarded the top grades, the best figures in the UK.

However, a social mobility expert has said there are questions to be asked about the “fairness” of the UK’s exam system as different grading standards have been used in different nations.

A-level results in Northern Ireland, England, and Wales have been published today, with each nation taking an individual approach this year to grading and support offered to pupils following changes during the pandemic.

Many A-level students in Northern Ireland and Wales were given advance information about topics to expect in their exam papers this summer, but pupils in England were not given the same support.

England’s exams regulator Ofqual previously said it built protection into the grading process this year to recognise the disruption that students have faced.

This should have enabled a pupil in England to get the grade they would have received before the pandemic even if the quality of their work is a little bit weaker due to disruption.

But this has led to warnings from some quarters about the impact on students.

Lee Elliot Major, professor of social mobility at the University of Exeter, said: “Questions must be asked about the fairness of an examination system that has applied different grade standards to different year cohorts of students but also students in the same year.”

In Northern Ireland, 37.5% of this year’s entries were awarded an A or A*, the top grades available. 

This compares to a figure of 44.0% last year across Northern Ireland and 29.4% in 2019.

This cohort of students who are receiving their A-level results today did not sit GCSE exams and were awarded teacher-assessed grades amid the pandemic.

Meanwhile in England, A-level results show that 26.5% of entries were awarded an A or A* grade this summer, compared to 35.9% last year and 25.2% in 2019.

In Wales, 34.0% of entries were awarded an A or A* grade this year, compared to 40.9% last year and 26.5% in 2019.

education-alevels Percentage of entries awarded A and A* in A-Level exams across the UK this summer. Press Association Images Press Association Images

Covid-19 led to an increase in top grades in 2020 and 2021, with results based on teacher assessments instead of exams.

Speaking as the results were published, Ofqual chief regulator Jo Saxton said: “I think what’s really important is to remember the context here.

“There have been differences between qualifications across the devolved administrations for as long as there’s been devolution pretty much.

“Again, because we work hand-in-hand with universities and employers, these are well understood.

“The number of students who cross borders is fewer than 5% in terms of crossing borders to study at HE and universities are used to working with over 700 qualification types.

“I really, really understand why people are worried that this might be an issue, but I just don’t think that it is.”

education-alevels Press Association Images Press Association Images

Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said the UK’s university admissions service Ucas is used to dealing with different education systems – for example AS-levels operate differently in Wales and Northern Ireland than in England.

However, he said those using their A-level results to apply to university “should not be worried” as Ucas understands the differences in qualifications.

Press Association
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