When it comes to A-Levels, there’s often a lot of talk about “grade inflation” and “dumbing down”. The problem is that when people say this, they often don’t have anything to back up this argument. Moreover, with the 2015 reformation of A-Levels could the “dumbing down” be a thing of the past.
In this article we’ll dive right into these questions to answer the question of whether A-Levels are getting easier or harder.
Considering the data, it would suggest that A-Levels are getting harder in terms of the actual assessment and the content. However, due to policies in place, the level of difficulty in terms of passing as well as getting the top grades seems to have remained relatively the same since at least 2008.
The question of whether A-Levels are getting easier of harder is much more complex than the brief answer you’ve just been given. Continue reading to get the full details on why A-Levels might have been getting harder.
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Are A-Levels getting harder or easier?
There is a fierce debate on whether A-Levels are actually getting easier or if they’re actually getting harder. In online forums and even just by asking around you’re quite likely to find that there are mixed views on the matter.
Some people are strongly convinced that A-Levels have been getting easier, others are under the belief that they’re getting much harder. However, in this article, we’ll look more at the facts rather than relying just on personal opinion.
The question is, just how are we going to do that?
In order to come to a clear factually based judgement on whether A-Levels have been getting easier or harder, it’s important that we have certain factors to look into that can show us which it is.
These factors that we’ll be looking at in this article are as follows.
- The pass rates
- The rates of students getting top grades
- The grade boundaries
Other than these factors, that will each be looked at in greater details below, there’s some important context that we need to keep in mind when coming up with this judgement.
A-Level qualifications are a rather old qualification, compared to others in the UK education system. As a result of this, these qualifications have been through great deals of change since they were first introduced in 1951.
One of the more recent changes as of 2023 is that A-Level were reformed in 2015, leading to AS-Levels and A-Levels becoming separate qualifications in England and some other regions and general changes across the UK. You can learn more about all this in the following section, which will give you a bit of an overview on the history of A-Level qualifications.
How have A-Level qualifications changed?
A-Level qualifications were first introduced in 1951 alongside the O Level qualifications, which are no longer taken in the UK and were replaced by GCSEs in 1986. You can learn more about O Levels in this Think Student article.
The way that A-Levels qualifications are graded has changed significantly since they were first introduced. When they were first introduced, students would receive either a pass grade or a distinction grade, otherwise they would have failed. Then in 1963, the A-E grading system was introduced and even this has faced reform in how it was done since then.
For more on when A-Levels were introduced and how their grading has changed, have a look at this page on the parliament website, where you’ll see a report from the Select Committee on Education and Skills.
As for more recent reforms, it wasn’t until 2010 that the A* grade was introduced. This was due to critics saying that A-Levels weren’t hard enough and it was felt that too many students were receiving A grades, which previously the highest that students could achieve. You can learn more about this by checking out this article by the BBC.
The most significant change in A-Levels since then as of 2023 is when they were reformed from 2015. In England, this meant that AS-Levels and A-Levels were decoupled and that students would only do exams at the end of the 2 years for A-Levels or would get a standalone qualification for an AS-Level.
This wasn’t the case throughout the UK, as in Wales and Northern Ireland, AS-Level exams are still done. However, for all, A-Levels, the content was reformed with the hope of being more challenging.
You can learn more about the reformation of A-Levels in England by checking out this page on the government website. For more on the reformed A-Levels in Wales and Northern Ireland, check out this guide by UCAS.
Is it getting harder or easier to pass A-Levels?
One of the best ways to look at how the difficulty of A-Level exams might have changed is to look at the pass rates. Using the pass rates to compare A-Levels over the years, we can see if more or less students are passing.
In this case, more students passing their A-Levels would suggest that the A-Levels are getting easier. Whereas less students passing their A-Levels would suggest that they’re actually getting harder.
Look at the following table to see the pass rates of A-Level students over the years. The following list contains data that spans from 2008 to 2023.
You can learn more about these figures, by checking out this page on the Ofqual website.
Between 2008 and 2023, the percentage of students passing their A-Levels, tends to be fairly similar, with the exact same percentage being recorded in 2008 and 2023. While there are some points where it would appear that A-Levels had become slightly easier, the total difference between these pass rates is still only 2.5%, showing that they still are quite similar.
At least in terms of passing, this would suggest that A-Levels are neither getting easier nor harder and in fact are remaining rather consistent. However, this is only in terms of the pass rates, let’s look at the other factors to give us more context.
Is it getting easier or harder for A-Level students to get the top grades?
As you can see from the previous section, the pass rates of A-Level students between 2008 and 2023 are fairly similar to each other. Due to this, looking at the grades that A-Level students received in more detail can provide a little more insight into how the A-Levels’ level of difficulty might have changed.
Getting the top grades in an A-Level isn’t easy. However, by looking at the data, we can infer whether it has gotten easier or harder to do so by the proportion of students, who are receiving these top grades.
Look at the following table to see the proportion of students that received either A grades or A* grades in their A-Levels. Once again, this data will be from 2008 to 2023.
|Year||Percentage of students with A/ A* grades|
You can find this data by checking out this page on the Ofqual website.
With the exception of 2020, 2021 and 2022, where students were strongly affected by the COVID-19 pandemic and the subsequent lockdown that affected learning and/or proper examinations, the proportion of students receiving the top grades on their A-Levels remains relatively similar.
Between 2008 and 2012, the proportion of students receiving top grades seems to have ever so slightly increased, only to consistently decrease from then until 2017. After this, there was both more increases and decreases.
With the constant fluctuation across the years, it would once again suggest that the difficulty of A-Levels is remaining consistent, at least in terms of students’ ability to get the top grades. Thus, it would appear once again that A-Levels are neither getting harder nor easier.
Are the A-Level grade boundaries getting harder or easier?
Grade boundaries are set after students have taken the exam and are one of the last parts of the marking process. This is so that they can reflect what students faced when completing exams and thus are in line with the exam takers’ performance as a whole. You can learn more about this by checking this page on the government website.
As a result of this, grade boundaries are an amazing way to see how easy or difficult different components of A-Level qualifications were for students as the grade boundaries are made lower or higher to counter for this.
Due to this, we’ll expect higher grade boundaries to suggest that the A-Level students have performed very well, meaning that it was easier. Whereas lower grade boundaries tend to mean that the exam or component of the A-Level was more difficult and thus that it has gotten harder.
The only problem here is that there are so many different subjects that all have different numbers of exams/ coursework components, different amounts of marks as well as their being all the different exam boards. Due to this, comparing all of the different grade boundaries in general just isn’t a realistic way to figure out whether A-Levels have become easier or harder.
Instead, we’ll just look at the grade boundaries of 1 A-Level subject, A-Level English Language, from the AQA exam board as it is the main in the UK. As we’re looking at these grade boundaries over the years, we can still see how the grade boundaries may have changed and can apply this change generally across different subjects and exam boards.
This is because grade boundaries and A-Level exams as whole are regulated to make them fair no matter what exam board a student takes. Also, A-Level English Language is a good one to compare as it has little variation and so students would all be doing the same exams, making it clearer to compare.
Are the A-Level English Language grade boundaries getting harder or easier?
Look at the following table to see the grade boundaries for AQA A-Level English Language. The following table includes data from 2010 to 2023, as previously mentioned, this is when the A* grade was introduced.
|2016 (A)||AS and A-Level 150 each||AS= N/A A-Level= 139||AS= 130 A-Level= 128||AS= 113 A-Level= 112||AS= 98 A-Level= 96||AS= 83 A-Level= 80||AS= 68 A-Level= 66|
|2016 (B)||AS and A-Level 176 each||AS= N/A A-Level= 155||AS= 142 A-Level= 139||AS= 122 A-Level= 119||AS= 104 A-Level= 99||AS= 86 A-Level= 79||AS= 68 A-Level= 59|
|2015 (A)||AS and A-Level 150 each||AS= N/A A-Level= 138||AS= 129 A-Level= 127||AS= 112 A-Level= 111||AS= 96 A-Level= 95||AS= 80 A-Level= 79||AS= 65 A-Level= 64|
|2015 (B)||AS and A-Level 176 each||AS= N/A A-Level= 153||AS= 138 A-Level= 137||AS= 119 A-Level= 117||AS= 102 A-Level= 97||AS= 85 A-Level= 77||AS= 68 A-Level= 58|
|2014 (A)||AS and A-Level 150 each||AS= N/A A-Level= 137||AS= 124 A-Level= 125||AS= 108 A-Level= 109||AS= 93 A-Level= 94||AS= 78 A-Level= 79||AS= 53 A-Level= 55|
|2014 (B)||AS and A-Level 176 each||AS= N/A A-Level= 154||AS= 138 A-Level= 138||AS= 120 A-Level= 118||AS= 103 A-Level= 98||AS= 86 A-Level= 79||AS= 70 A-Level= 60|
|2013 (A)||AS and A-Level 150 each||AS= N/A A-Level= 138||AS= 124 A-Level= 127||AS= 107 A-Level= 111||AS= 92 A-Level= 95||AS= 78 A-Level= 79||AS= 62 A-Level= 64|
|2013 (B)||AS and A-Level 176 each||AS= N/A A-Level= 159||AS= 141 A-Level= 142||AS= 122 A-Level= 121||AS= 104 A-Level= 100||AS= 77 A-Level= 80||AS= 70 A-Level= 60|
|2012 (A)||AS and A-Level 150 each||AS= N/A A-Level= 137||AS= 126 A-Level= 124||AS= 109 A-Level= 107||AS= 93 A-Level= 91||AS= 77 A-Level= 75||AS= 61 A-Level= 60|
|2012 (B)||AS and A-Level 176 each||AS= N/A A-Level= 157||AS= 136 A-Level= 140||AS= 117 A-Level= 119||AS= 99 A-Level= 98||AS= 81 A-Level= 77||AS= 64 A-Level= 56|
|2011 (A)||AS and A-Level 150 each||AS= N/A A-Level= 136||AS= 120 A-Level= 123||AS= 102 A-Level= 107||AS= 85 A-Level= 91||AS= 69 A-Level= 75||AS= 53 A-Level= 61|
|2011 (B)||AS and A-Level 176 each||AS= N/A A-Level= 157||AS= 137 A-Level= 139||AS= 116 A-Level= 117||AS= 96 A-Level= 95||AS= 77 A-Level= 74||AS= 58 A-Level= 53|
|2010 (A)||AS and A-Level 150 each||AS= N/A A-Level= 135||AS= 120 A-Level= 121||AS= 103 A-Level= 105||AS= 87 A-Level= 89||AS= 71 A-Level= 73||AS= 56 A-Level= 58|
|2010 (B)||AS and A-Level 176 each||AS= N/A A-Level= 158||AS= 139 A-Level= 141||AS= 118 A-Level= 119||AS= 99 A-Level= 97||AS= 80 A-Level= 75||AS= 61 A-Level= 53|
*In the “legacy” (2016 and before) A-Level, the AS and A-Level components each made up the entire A-Level grade. However, as the AS-Level components didn’t have the A* grade, these have been displayed separately. There were also 2 options for A-Level English Language under AQA in this period, either option A, which had 300 marks in total or option B, which had 352 marks in total.
As you can see the current A-Level and the legacy A-Level are wildly different in terms of how they are set up, which makes judging which ones is harder even more complicated. To make it a bit easier, we’ll focus only on the passing grade, E, and the A grade.
Look at the following table, which shows the proportion of marks that students needed to get in order to get an A or an E grade for each of the years.
In this table, it’s clear that students need to get a higher proportion of marks in the legacy A-Level than in the current A-Level, with the exception of 2019 for getting an A grade, which has a quite similar figure. This would suggest that the A-Level since 2017 is harder in terms of the exams and any coursework, making it more difficult for students to get marks. As a result, there was a need for lower grade boundaries to reflect this.
Therefore, particularly as the levels of students both passing and getting the top grades is relatively similar before and after 2017, it would suggest that the actual content and assessment of A-Levels is getting harder not easier.