Brilliant Club

Reflecting on the results of 2023 and their impact on university access

07 Sep 2023

The Brilliant Club discusses grade deflation, this year’s university access rates, and what the latest figures might tell us about educational inequality.

Author: Dr Charlotte Hallahan (Senior Policy and Communications Officer)

You might think, looking at this years’ A Level and GCSE Results in England, that nothing much has changed since 2019. After students returned to sitting in sports halls for the first time in three years, armed with see-through pencil cases and black biros, A-Level and GCSE grades have fallen back to pre-pandemic levels. Much of this drop in grades can be attributed to government-planned grade deflation, as we move away from the centre and teacher-assessed grades  that schools awarded during the pandemic, and back to examinations.

Last year, 35.9% of A-level entries in England were awarded top grades. This year, it has fallen to 26.5%. Whilst this figure is still higher than the 2019 rate (25.2%), the context that students have been learning in is by no means the same. We can see a similar trend in this year’s GCSE results: pass rates are down from 73.2% last year to 68.2% this year and is now similar to pre-pandemic levels (67.8%).

However, when we look closely at this year’s grades, inequalities between different student groups emerge again. Grade deflation has affected some student groups more than others, and there is a persistent disparity between less advantaged students and their more advantaged peers. The results tell us that:


  1. Regional divides are becoming more pronounced:

The proportion of students achieving top grades in both A Levels and GCSEs in parts of northern England have declined relative to 2019, whereas the rate in other regions, notably London, has increased. Research by The Labour Party found that students in London and the south east are 40% more likely to get top grades compared to the north east. We can perhaps draw a parallel between areas with lower GCSE and A Level grades and areas with the highest eligibility for free school meals.

  1. Grade deflation is steeper in state schools than private ones:

The GCSE pass rate in independent schools in England was 90.1% this year, down from 92.6% in 2022. In state schools, it was 68.1% down from 73.2%. The A Level results this year show that private school students are more than twice as likely to receive A and A* grades than students in state schools.

  1. University admissions haven’t fallen by as much as some feared…

Across the UK, 79% of those receiving results gained a place at their first-choice university, UCAS says. This is slightly less than last years’ figure (81%), but larger than the 2019 figure (74%). UCAS tells us that 16,530 students who received free school meals have also gained a place at university, which is a 60% increase from 2019.

  1. …But students from the least advantaged backgrounds are 6% less likely to go to university than they were last year:

In their analysis of the UCAS data, dataHE have said that the entry rate for this group has fallen from 24.7 per cent last year to 23.1 per cent in 2023. They call this an ‘unprecedented’ drop, which equates to students from the least advantaged backgrounds being more than 6 per cent less likely to go to university than they were last year.


As more data is released, we will have a better sense of the current attainment and access gaps between less advantaged students and their peers. But it is clear that the sector must continue to invest in initiatives that raise attainment and build academic self-efficacy, so that students from less-advantaged backgrounds can access and succeed at the most competitive universities.

Our own university access programme, The Scholars Programme, provides students aged 8-18 with the experience of university-style learning in the classroom. For the less advantaged students we work with, this establishes university study as a viable and achievable option and is proven to increase applications and progression to competitive universities.

We asked one of our ambassadors, Kayana, who participated in The Brilliant Club’s Scholars Programme at school, what it was like to receive her grades this year:

“After trying to put results day out of my mind for the summer I found myself a nervous wreck the night before. A fear of failure actually stopped me from attending results day at my sixth form and I instead looked to UCAS to get a rough idea of what my results may have been based on my offer decisions. Whilst I did not get into my firm choice, due to lower results than my predicted grades, I was able to get an offer through clearing which I am really happy with. A lot of universities were really accommodating, and I will be attending The University of Law this September so I’m overall very happy.”

Students like Kayana will now be heading on to their next chapter. Supporting them to make the transition from school to their next step is vital, particularly for students from less advantaged backgrounds who are more likely to drop out before their second year and less likely to graduate with a 1st or 2:1 in their degree.

We support students to make the transition from school to university through our Join the Dots programme, which builds an essential network of free support for students who are most likely to face barriers during the transition to higher education. The programme connects schools and colleges to a university, works with postgraduate students to provide coaching, and builds communities between students when they arrive on campus. Join the Dots ensures that support does not end when a young person leaves their school on results day.

We will continue to play our part in supporting students to access and succeed at university, but it is clear from this year’s results that the impact of the last few years has been significant, particularly for those from less advantaged backgrounds. Now, more than ever, the sector needs to do all we can to ensure young people have equal access to opportunity.

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