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26th October 2021

How A-levels lost their meaning

Over the summer, as pupils across the UK received their A-level results, many breathed sighs of relief. The algorithm which incorrectly marked down many students in 2020 was abandoned, switching to a teacher-assessed approach. They did not sit exams this year or the last year, with grades instead being determined by in-class tests, essays, and other work throughout the year.

The pandemic has meant that educational institutions at all levels have taken more lenient approaches to marking. For students this year, it has meant that 44.8% of them have achieved either an A or A*. While this may seem good to students in the short-term, in the future those marks will lose their meaning as nearly half of their peers will be at the same high level.

This grade dilution means that students will have to do more in order to stand out in the crowd. When grades skyrocket, rapidly-filling universities will need to rely on other metrics to decide who to admit. This could also affect their job prospects as the high number of qualified applicants will make it difficult to be noticed by potential employers.

Medical schools are among the worst affected, with many more students than usual achieving the required results. Professor Malcolm Reed, Co-Chair of the Medical Schools Council (MSC), describes the issue.

“This year, we have seen applications to medicine courses rise by 20 per cent, and many more applicants have met the terms of their offers than forecast,” Reed says.

To combat this issue, the Medical Schools Council is offering £10,000 to any student who must change medical school due to oversubscription. Professor Reed also emphasises the need to continue training large numbers of medical professionals in the UK.

“Medical schools recognise the need to bolster the future NHS workforce,” Reed said, “and by supporting this brokerage programme have committed to ensuring that expansion considers the need to maintain high quality medical education and training for all future doctors.”

There is already talk of scrapping A-levels completely, instead switching to a numerical grading system. While he agrees that something must be done to preserve the meaning of A-level marks, Education Secretary Gavin Williamson has said that he is looking at other less drastic options.

Whatever change is made to the marking system in the future, one thing is clear – the graduating class of 2021 is going to have to get creative to stand out in a sea of excellent marks.


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