The figures published by the Joint Council for Qualifications (JCQ) cover a total of 824,718 A Level results across England, Wales and Northern Ireland.
Students studied 40 different A/AS Level subjects, and the most popular A Level subjects this year were maths, psychology, biology and chemistry. The largest number of entries was for A Level maths and further maths, taken by a total of 104,858 students, compared with 101,390 in 2020 and 98,695 in 2019.
There has been a sizeable increase in the number of students taking geography (16.8%), law (15.4%), computing (11.3%) and psychology (9.2%). There has been a slight decrease in the number of students taking design and technology (5.8%), German (4.9%), English literature (4.6%), media studies (3.5%) and English language (3.4%).
Spanish continues to be the most popular A Level in modern foreign languages, with 8,433 entries, followed by French and German.
Across the UK, 39,734 results were issued for the Extended Project Qualification (EPQ), an independent research project.
Girls received more top grades than boys overall. 19.7% of girls were awarded A*, compared with 18.4% for boys, and the rate of A*-A grades was 46.4% for girls and 41.7% for boys. This reverses the gender gap of 2019 when more boys were outperforming girls. Girls also overtook boys for the first time in maths, with 29.1% achieving A* grades compared to 28.5% of male students.
In England, London and the South East were the top performing regions, with 47% of entries being graded A*-A. The North East had the lowest number of A*-A grades with 39% (up from 35.6% in 2020).
As well as A Level results being released earlier this year, today is the first time that all AS and A Level, some vocational qualifications, Scottish Highers and Advanced Highers, and Welsh Baccalaureate grades have been released on the same day; GCSE results will be published on Thursday (August 12).
Once again, A Level exams this year were cancelled due to Covid-19, and students have been awarded results based solely on Teacher Assessed Grades (TAGs); these are based on mock exams, coursework, or other work completed as part of a student’s course, such as essays or in-class tests. The UK government hoped to avoid last year's controversy when students were initially awarded calculated grades based on an algorithm. In a major government U-turn, these grades were withdrawn, and all students were issued Centre Assessment Grades (CAGs) based on teacher assessments.
Last year, almost two in five A Levels - 38.5% - were awarded an A* or A compared with 25.5% in 2019. Ahead of today’s A Level results being published, concerns were raised about grade inflation and the disparity of results between schools and their students. This puts pressure on the university admissions system, and universities and places of further education more generally.
Universities, who received the results last week from the Examination Boards, had anticipated that this year's grades will, on average, be one grade higher than last year by comparison.
There are disparities between the results received at independent and state schools in the UK, and a record-breaking increase in top grades awarded to students in the independent schools sector compared with 2019 and 2020.
By comparison, 25.8% of entries at the UK's selective grammar schools were graded A* this year; the figure is 15.3% at UK state secondary comprehensive schools, 17% at academy schools, and 12% at sixth form colleges.
Just under 400,000 students have a confirmed place at their first-choice of full-time undergraduate course at a UK university. Initial UCAS figures show a 5% increase in the total number of students accepted onto a UK degree course, compared to last year.
UCAS director of strategy and policy John Cope told Sky News today (August 10) that UK universities have seen a record number of applications, up about 8%. He added:
"We have seen a record number of people getting their first choice – over 90% for the first time... We have seen more people getting higher grades. Clearing will be competitive."
Used by University and College admissions services around the world, A Levels remain one of the most widely recognised pre-university and college entry examinations. More universities are already considering setting their own entrance exams in the coming years due to the ongoing concerns about the accuracy of A Level results.
Leading universities could be forced to set their own tests to help them distinguish between the many prospective students awarded straight As, given the lack of an objective measure by which to judge the academic ability of school-leavers.
The government has said that all UK universities can now return to full face-to-face teaching after two years of disruption and campus closures. While universities are autonomous, Education Secretary Gavin Williamson has suggested that universities that do not go back to in-person lectures and seminars should not charge full tuition fees.
Speaking on Sky News today (August 10), Mr Williamson said:
"I think if universities are not delivering what students expect, then actually they shouldn't be charging the full fees."
UK Education Secretary Gavin Williamson said that students getting their A Level results today 'deserve' the grades they get.
"Students have worked very hard in what has been an extraordinary and challenging year, and each and every one of them should feel incredibly proud of their achievements. We should all celebrate their resilience and ability to overcome adversity.
Teachers and staff have ensured that, despite the disruption caused by the pandemic, all students are able to get grades this year and so can take their next steps and make their choices about further study or entering the workplace."
Dr Philip Wright, Director-General of the Joint Council for Qualifications (JCQ), said:
"On behalf of JCQ and the exam boards, I would like to congratulate all students receiving their results today. The impact of COVID has undoubtedly provided a difficult chapter in their education journey and their resilience is to be applauded. We wish them all the best as they take their next steps in life.
"We would also like to express our sincere thanks to teachers, exams officers, heads of centre and colleagues, who have all worked exceptionally hard to determine grades this summer. Teachers used their professional judgement and submitted the grades and evidence in good time for us to check and award grades today."
Prime Minister Boris Johnson combined his congratulations to A Level students with a message for all young people to get vaccinated against Covid-19.
"Congratulations to everyone receiving their A-level results today. It's been an extremely challenging year and you should all be very proud of what you've achieved. And as you move to this exciting next stage, make sure you remember to get your jab."
A Level results are traditionally released mid-to-late August, but this year the date has been moved forward slightly to allow students more time to appeal results. A Level students who are unhappy with their Teacher Assessed Grades can appeal their grades or retake A Level exams in the same subject in autumn 2021.
Read more: GCSE, A Level Results Day 2021: Need to Know
This year, the IB Diploma Programme's dual route option of exam or non-examined assessments saw a rise in pass rates, average scores, and top scorers. The average IBDP score for the May 2021 session was 32.99 points, up from 31.34 in May 2020 and 29.62 in 2019. While this year’s A Level results are based solely on Teacher Assessed Grades, the IB results are based partially on assessments that were marked by IB Examiners.
Read more: UK May 2021 IB Results
For the second year running, the UK’s Department for Education (DfE) will not be publishing league tables for secondary qualifications. The most recent league tables for all state and independent schools are based on 2019 results.
However, the DfE has already announced that results from GCSE and A Level qualifications in 2021-22 will be published in school and college performance tables. This is because “after two years without publication of performance data, it is important that this information is publicly available to parents and students to support them when choosing schools and post-16 institutions, given the importance of qualification outcomes to student progression”.