A level results day 2021: what record results mean for universities and post-18 routes to work

Today, 700,000 students receive their A level results in the second year Covid-19 has impacted how grades are calculated. Many are celebrating top grades and more UK students have secured their first-choice place at university. UK universities continue to bolster their attractiveness to international students.

Image of young people celebrating in corridor
In a year like no other, A level students across England, Northern Ireland and Wales have achieved record results in 2021. Top grades (A-A*) comprised 44.8% of all results compared to 38.5% in 2020.
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How were A levels assessed in 2021?

Teachers and schools estimated grades based on a mixture of mock exams, essays and final assessments. Schools then submitted these grades and measures like a sample of students’ work to exam boards to ensure consistency.Speaking to the BBC ahead of results day, Simon Lebus, interim Chief Regulator of Ofqual, said this year’s teacher assessment approach to A levels and GCSEs was designed to more accurately reflect students’ attainment over their courses and give a fair assessment of student capability."Exams are a bit like a snapshot, a photograph – you capture an instant," he said. "Whereas teacher assessment allows teachers to observe student performance over a much longer period, taking into account lots of different pieces of work and arriving at a holistic judgement."I'm very confident that when they get their grades on Tuesday and Thursday this week they'll be able to feel satisfied that that's happened."

Impact of higher A level grades on university admissions

While schools and students celebrate their successes after a difficult two years of interrupted learning and reflect on their resilience, university admissions departments are braced for a busy few weeks. This despite record numbers receiving their first choice of university.Clare Marchant, Chief Executive of UCAS, the university admissions service in the UK, told BBC Radio 4 last week that she expects demand for university places to increase from around 700,000 applicants to a million by 2025. This rise was a "testament to the success of UK higher education"."Demand from 18-year-olds is rising, there's a demographic increase and international attractiveness. What universities are trying to do is make sure they have diversity on their courses, which enriches the whole learning experience."UCAS analysis published today also shows that more students received their first-choice place this year than last year. A record 435,430 students have a place, up 5% on results day 2020. For the whole UK 388,230 students (up 8%) have been accepted, with 245,330 aged 18 (up 17%). The overall UK 18-year-old entry rate is 34.1%, up from 30.2% in 2020. A record 20.7% of all UK 18 year olds from the most disadvantaged backgrounds in the UK also have an undergraduate place (26,640 accepted students). However, as yet there has been no progress in closing the gap to students from the most advantaged areas, says Ucas. Internationally, a new high of 37,390 (+9%) students from outside the EU have been accepted, with markets including Malaysia (up 33% to 2,230 placed applicants), USA (up 33% to 2,160) and Nigeria (up 40% to 840) showing substantial increases. For the EU, 9,820 students have been accepted to study in the UK, representing a fall of 56%.

What the results mean for the labour market

UCAS's analysis has further identified increased interest in courses that offer a distinct career path, such as nursing. Yet applications for apprenticeships were down this year, despite an interest in more vocational higher and further education, a finding backed by the City & Guilds Group, which provides global professional and technical education and corporate learning.It reports that nearly three-fifths (57%) of 17-19-year-olds in the last two years of school it surveyed say their decisions about post-education work or training have been impacted by the pandemic. A fifth (20%) say they now want to stay in full time education for longer than they originally intended.Commenting on today's A level results and the findings, Kirstie Donnelly MBE, CEO of City & Guilds said: "As the jobs landscape continues to reel from the impact of Covid-19 and Brexit, more school leavers are turning towards university as a default choice."But, with our Skills Index research revealing that employers are twice as likely to take on apprentices or trainees to fill skills gaps (36%), as opposed to graduates (18%) within the coming years, a university degree might not be the golden ticket to a job that many had hoped."As young people get their results this week, it’s more important than ever that they explore all the options open to them – whether that’s a degree, an apprenticeship, or a degree level apprenticeship – and ensure they are fully informed about career opportunities, so they can make the smartest choices about their futures.”Bhavina Bharkhada, Make UK Head of Policy & Campaigns said: “The increase in top grades awarded in Maths amongst female students, and high number of young people sitting STEM subjects is fantastic news - especially for the manufacturing sector who are looking for the next generation of innovators, creators and makers.“The pandemic has shown just how integral our science, technology, and industrial base is the UK and we hope these young people are inspired to join our sector to help to tackle the big societal challenges we face as we come out of the Covid crisis.“We urge young people to look at wealth of opportunities and options available to them including apprenticeships when considering their next steps. Despite the difficult year, almost 6 in 10 employers are continuing to make these opportunities open and accessible to all young people across the whole of the UK.”

Redressing the impact of the pandemic on careers

Commenting on today's news, Matthew Fell, Chief UK Policy Director at business representive body the CBI, offered his congratulations to everyone receiving their A level results and echoed Kirstie Donnelly's sentiment.“Regardless of the outcome, young people should remember that qualifications are just one of the factors employers look at when recruiting. Businesses value the resilience students have demonstrated throughout the pandemic enormously, alongside skills like creativity and teamwork.“Firms are committed to helping young people get ready for the world of work – be it through Kickstart placements, apprenticeships, or work experience. Universities will similarly be working hard to support students, helping them find places and showing flexibility when making admissions decisions.”The CIPD, the professional body for HR and people development, has also launched the Million Chances campaign this week with employers. It aims to improve labour market opportunities for young people aged 18-30 who feel the pandemic has negatively impacted their careers.The CIPD’s survey of 2,064 young people finds that 43% of them feel the pandemic has harmed their long-term career prospects because of redundancy, changes in their industry or because of how homeworking has limited their opportunity to network.Government figures show how this demographic has been among the most impacted by unemployment in the pandemic. In June 2021, there were 166,000 fewer young people aged 16-24 in employment compared to the previous year.Lizzie Crowley, Senior Skills Advisor at the CIPD, commented: “While Brexit and much talk of staff shortages in recent months may give the impression that is should be easy for young people to walk into a job, they are still often left at the back of the queue because employers tend to favour experienced workers.“We want to help young people get their career off to a flying start as unemployment at a young age can leave permanent scarring – and means they are more likely to earn less over the course of their working lives and experience more spells of unemployment. We also don’t want [employers] to miss out on the creativity, ingenuity and energy young people bring to an organisation.”To coincide with the campaign launch, the CIPD has released a new guide for employers to help employers meet their workforce challenges.

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