In Britain, we have this traditional ritual in which after the release of A-level exam results, the press perpetuates the view that A-levels are getting easier again as pass rates reach record highs. Is this true? I don’t know.

I have just taken my A levels but I haven’t taken papers from many years ago so I can’t give an accurate comparison. But purely anecdotally, past papers always seem easier than the actual exam papers. I can’t conclude from this that they are getting easier because exam papers are supposed to get easier as you practice them; it makes perfect sense that the actual exam should be easier than all the past papers you do beforehand.

What is true is that the number of top "A" grades being awarded rose this year from 24.1% to 25.3%. And 96.9% of scripts were awarded a Pass at grades A to E. 

I can think of three possible reasons why:

  • People are getting smarter, or teaching is getting better!
  • Exams are getting easier
  • Schools are kicking out badly performing students or refusing to allow them to take the exam in order to ensure their own pass rates look good.

Young people getting smarter? We should hope so! The UK is a knowledge-based economy; we need more smart people, more university graduates if we’re going to perform well in the international economy in the future.

Exams getting easier? Perhaps.

Schools fiddling pass rates? Definitely. I know my school does it, I know schools my friends do it, everybody does it. If they think theres any chance of you failing, they may often not allow you to take the exam. You can go to another school to take it; sure – just not at your own.


Now, I’m personally not too bothered at all whether they are getting easier. Perhaps they are, perhaps they aren’t – really, it doesn’t matter. What matters is that A level grades are useful and allow employers and universities to confidently determine how good a student is.

I mean, if 25% of people get an A grade, it is impossible to distinguish between anybody in that top 25%. The introduction of an A* grade (90% for A*, 80 for A) next year will help this along.

But further, I believe exams should be made harder! If students are indeed getting smarter, as the pass rates would seem to indicate, why not make them harder? This will challenge the brightest students, and again, allow people to determine more accurately how smart someone really is!


I know that people who have taken A-levels often get offended by the talk of exams getting easier. But I believe it is in the interest of every student for employers to have faith in the A-level system and grades.

If pass rates are rising, we should firstly be congratulating young people on their success and secondly making the exams harder to continue to challenge young people and to maintain faith in A-levels.

Saying that exams need to be made harder does not mean belittling the work of A-level students; as one myself, I know how much hard work, time and effort A-levels require. But we want to be able to leave college at the age of 16 with our heads held high and with grades in a system which employers have confidence in.


I hope everyone who received their A-level results last week got the results they wanted, and congratulations. 

4 thoughts on “A-Levels

  1. Schools probably are fiddling marks. Since this government used exam marks as a way to determine how well a school is doing (and therefore how much funding they get) a lot of schools now are cheating the system in order to get more money.

    I’m sure an increase in the number of students doing supposedly easier subjects (Media studies) probably alters this as well.

  2. The other reason is that more schools are teaching students to pass the exam, rather than teaching the subject.  The exams are being gamed.  Something is wrong when University lecturers are complaining that first year students are turning up with grade A results but a poor understanding of the subject.

  3. It strikes me as particularly naive to go cutting the funding of poor schools. Surely they are the ones in most need of funding?

    I’ve heard of schools pushing kids quite hard to avoid subjects like maths unless they’re a very strong student in the area, because they’re more likely to get an A in media studies.

    While kids may actually be getting smarter and working harder, we’ll never be able to tell while the schools have such a vested interest in getting the highest marks out of their students, instead of providing them with a decent education from which good marks should follow. It must be soul-destroying for a teacher to not teach a child properly because it’s probably got a better chance with A grades and no idea than Bs and an education.

    Likewise, the government’s mentality of setting quotas and cutting budgets penalises any solution which is either risky or won’t show up in the next set of figures. Combine this with foolhardy ideas such as sending half the population to university and the result is figures showing massive success as the system plunges headlong into a disasterous failure.

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