Almost 100,000 more school leavers in the UK could miss out on top A-level grades this year than last, an education expert has suggested, as students wait for their A-level results, due to be released on Thursday, 17 August 2023.

After two years of grade inflation which saw the number of A* grades almost treble under teacher assessments in place of exams, this year the Government has stressed its intention for grade patterns to return to pre-pandemic levels. A Department for Education spokesperson said “This year GCSE and A-level grading is largely returning to normal, in line with plans set out by Ofqual almost two years ago, to make sure qualifications maintain their value and students get the opportunities they deserve”.

However, education expert Professor Alan Smithers from the University of Buckingham predicts that the number of A* and A grades will fall significantly, but not by as much as the Government requested. Professor Smithers, director of the University of Buckingham’s Centre for Education and Employment Research (CEER), suggests that the number of high grades is unlikely to drop to the extent that the government hopes because teachers developed a ‘taste for awarding top grades’ in some subjects during the pandemic which markers will be ‘reluctant to relinquish’, and exam boards are likely to have been slightly more lenient in light of the disruption caused by teacher strikes.

In a recently released report, Professor Smithers estimates that “to get back to pre-pandemic levels in 2023 from those in 2021 would mean about 100,000 fewer A* grades and about 168,000 fewer A*/A grades … allowing for candidates getting lower grades in an average of two subjects would mean that a decline of 100,000 fewer A* would translate into 50,000 students and 95,000 fewer A*/A into 47,500 students.”

While Professor Smithers agrees that the number of top grades will be reduced, he suggests that it is unlikely numbers will fall back to 2019 levels this year. In 2022, almost 160,000 applicants were free to be placed in Clearing, with nearly 60,000 students accepted via Clearing.

It’s difficult to know the extent to which universities have factored a ‘return to normal’ exam grading into their offers, and whether this will match up to what actually happens. Given the level of uncertainty around grading and offers, university accommodation offices and private student accommodation operators will be bracing themselves for the prospect of another record clearing season ahead.