A-levels: from grade inflation to reforms

Published: 15th Aug 2013

  • A-Levels comprise the Advanced Subsidary (AS) - a qualification in its own right - and the A2, which is not.
  • Pupils wishing to enter A-levels should achieve at least 5 GCSE with grades A*-C.
  • Critics have expressed concerns about grade inflation. They see the steady rise in average grades for nearly 20 consecutive years as evidence that A-levels are getting easier.
  • To address this as well as a series of other concerns, Education Secretary Michael Gove announced plans to reform the A-levels structure and the teaching curriculum.

Evidence of grade inflation

In 1987 grade allocation quotas (where 10% of candidates would get an A, 15% a B, 10% a C, and so on) was abolished and replaced by "criteria referencing".

Since this point there has been a sharp increase in student performance, particularly at the upper end of the scale. In 1982 the A grade was awarded to only 8.9% of entrants. By 2012 26.6% of students were achieving A or A* grades.

(Source: Alan Smithers on A-levels, Centre for Education and Employment Research, University of Buckingham)

A-levels in the 21st century

In 2000 new reforms to A-levels introduced AS-levels, an intermediate qualification between GCSE and the full A-level, which it was hoped would encourage students to study a wider range of subjects.

A-level courses have also changed since 2000 with the number of 'units' making up a qualification being reduced from six to four. The amount of coursework required from students has also reduced.

In 2010, an additional A* grade was introduced with the aim of helping universities identify the very best performers. 

A-level reforms expected to be in place by September 2015

In 2010 the goverment published a White Paper on the future of A-levels. This was followed by a consultation run by Ofqual on the same subject. The changes being proposed include:

  • In future, universities will play a greater role in the development of A-levels.
  • Students will be limited in the number of resits they take.
  • The assessment system within A-levels will change, rendering the qualification fully linear. This means assessments will take place at the end of the course, rather than throughout the year.
  • AS qualifications will be "de-coupled" from A-levels; this means AS levels grade will not contribute to a full A-level qualification.

In a letter to Ofqual, Education Secretary Michael Gove said that he wanted the reform to be put into place by September 2015. That's when the new A-levels are expected to be taught in schools.

The four awarding organisations that offer A-levels in England (AQA, OCR, Pearson Edexcel and WJEC) have agreed to review the curriculum content in 13 subjects, including Maths, English, Biology and Computing.

Find out more on A-levels:

Michael Gove's letter to Ofqual

Ofqual's Impact Assessment of A-level reform

Ofqual's factsheet on A-level reform

Full Fact on grade inflation (2010)

Fit for Purpose? The view of the higher education sector, teachers and employers on the suitability of A levels (Ipsos Mori)

Full Fact: Are GCSEs better than AS-levels for predicting university success?

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