The class of 2020-22 – examinations report for GCE A level and Highers

For many young people this will have been the first time they have taken examinations since their final year of primary school. This cohort and their dedicated teachers have adapted, worked for much of their course online in Covid lockdowns, only working this year in classrooms and studios. The disruption of Covid-related absence continued to affect schools and colleges up to and including the summer exam series, the resilience and determination of this cohort leave us all in awe. We hope you and your students have achieved the grades you hoped were possible. 

In Scotland on 9 August, and today in England, Northern Ireland and Wales, the impact of overarching policies on the class of 2020-22 are in plain sight. Here, NSEAD has summarised what we know so far – the subject-specific national picture and regional trends; changes in the gender achievement and participation gap; grade uplifts and lowering. 


Art and design GCE entries 

All figures are using Joint Council for Qualifications (JCQ) data published 18 August. Figures in brackets indicate the percentage of the total cohort. Figures are provisional until October 2022.


Candidate numbers

There has been a 5.8% increase in GCE art and design (all UK candidate) completions this year;
2022: 44,690 

2021: 42,237. 

However, the increase represents only a return to the same percentage of the total number of students (I.e., 5.3%) between 2017-2020. In other words, the numbers have remained consistent over last 6 years (2021 being an anomaly).

Design and technology completions have increased by 14.2% (from 9979 (2021) to 11,404 (2022))

All subjects have increased by 2.9% (from 824,718 (2021) to 848,910 (2022)).



There has been a decrease in the percentage of A/A* grades awarded for art and design GCE:

2022: 38.7%

2021: 46.7%

This represents a percentage decrease in A/A* grades of 20.7% (from 46.7% to 38.7%)

All subjects have seen a decrease in A/A* grades of 18.8% (from 44.8% to 36.4%)

This indicates that art and design has seen a bigger decrease than all subjects combined. 

In almost all subjects, A*-A awards are above the midpoint between 2019 and 2021.


All subjects, A level (art and design in brackets) 2019-22

A* 2019: 7.7% (12.2%) 2021: 19.1% (21.5%) 2022: 14.6% (18.6%)

C 2019: 75.9% (84.7%) 2021: 88.5% (93.1%) 2022: 82.6% (90.4%)

Art and design has continued this year to award more C grades and more A* grades than other subjects combined. 

The percentage of A* grades awarded in all subjects combined compared to art and design has grown this year – in 2021 there was a 2.4 percentage point difference, this year it is 4.0 percentage points. The same can be said for C grades: In 2021, all subjects combined compared to art and design was 4.6 percentage points, this year is 7.8 percentage points. 


AS Level

Art and Design has one of the biggest AS level decreases in candidate numbers: -13.6% (5,601 in 2021 to 4,837 in 2022).


Provisional GCSE entries

The Department for Education (DfE) predicts and has reported that there has been a lowering of the numbers taking art and design GCSE this year. This is the first reported fall since 2016. 

In 2022 there were 194,040 (in 2015 there were 194,637). This indicates that art and design will next week see the lowest number of completions since 2014 (when there were 194,637).


GCE summary

The completions in art and design GCE have grown – this is the first rise in 10 years (since 2012). This is unlike GCSE which is predicted to see a fall in completions this year. NSEAD suggests that GCSE numbers are falling due to learners working online when subject choices were made – much learning was lost during the pandemic with both materials and digital poverty being widely reported. A level art and design subjects have by contrast grown, indicating that the pandemic has not had a negative impact on subject choices from GCSE to A level. 

Grade uplifts and lowering

In 2021 NSEAD reported on a grade uplift in art and design GCE results. Ahead of results day this year the DfE had already reported that the numbers of candidates achieving all grades will be lower than in 2020 and 2021. The DfE have explained why here

‘As we return to exams, we want to get back to the pre-pandemic standard, but in the interests of fairness, Ofqual (who take the decisions on grading) won’t do so in one jump.

‘Instead, 2022 will be a transition year to reflect that we are in a pandemic recovery period and students’ education has been disrupted. In 2022 the aim, therefore, will be to move grading to a point close to midway between 2021 and pre-pandemic profiles.

‘Results are likely to be higher than in 2019, but not as high as in 2020.’ 

The DfE states here: This year’s grades will be part way between summer 2019 and summer 2021.

The gap between independent schools and state selective schools has begun to return to pre-pandemic levels. Across all subjects the difference in entries graded A*-A between independent schools and state selective schools has returned to around 8 percentage points having reached almost 14 percentage points in 2021.

Centre differences between Secondary comprehensives, independent schools and academies achieving A/A* (all subjects): Since 2021 to 2022 there has been a 17.6% decrease in the number of grades awarded A/A* in independent schools; in academies this figure is 16.8%; in secondary comprehensive schools the drop is even more at 22.1%. Secondary comprehensives have seen the biggest decrease, followed by independent schools and academies.


What does this mean for art and design departments?

If your results are lower this year check to see if they are midway on average between what your centre achieved in 2021 and 2019. If your centre results are in line with the national picture, you should expect to see fewer grades at A* and A, and an increase in grades at B and below, compared to 2021. All centres will of course vary in terms of the local impact of Covid, the prior attainment of the cohort and a range of other factors.


The Gender Gap in art and Design

Gender and participation

This year 11,520 (3.0% of total sat) were male; in 2021 this was 2.9% – an increase of 0.1%

This year 33,170 (7.1% of total sat) were female; in 2021 this was 7.1% – an increase of 0.2%. This shows that more art and design students took art this year, but the increase was bigger for female students than male students.


Gender and achievement of A/A*

Year              M         F       =   Difference (M-F) percentage points

2021            37.7    49.8   =  12.1 

2022            30.3    41.6   =  11.

Difference     7.4      8.2  percentage points


Whilst the percentage of female candidates awarded A/A* grades remains higher than male candidates, the gap has closed slightly this year:  In 2021, there was a 12.1% difference between female and male A/A awards, and in 2022 there is a 11.3% difference between candidates achieving A/A grades. The gender attainment gap has slightly closed this year. However, there is is some way to go before we get near to the 8.1% percentage point difference between male and female A/A grades achieved in 2019.


National and Regional changes

Numbers sat, in England, N Ireland and Wales, years (2020-21) These can be viewed here.

Country    2021  – 2022   +/-  percentage difference

England: 39,293 – 41,737:  +6.2%

N Ireland: 796 – 803:    + 0.88%

Wales: 1,820 – 1,796:  -1.1%

United Kingdom: +5.8% 

England has overall seen the biggest increase this year.


A/A* grades by County (England only). These can be viewed here

In England alone, 38.8% of students achieved an A/A* grade


Higher achieving counties

Rutland was the highest achieving county: 61% achieved A/A* in art and design

East Sussex achieved 49%

Buckinghamshire 48%

Surrey 47.5%

Oxfordshire 44.7%

Berkshire 43.6%

Gloucestershire 43.5%

North Yorkshire 43.4%

Greater London 42.4%

Cambridgeshire 41.9%

Greater Manchester 41.8%

Norfolk 41.4%


Lower achieving counties

Northamptonshire. 11.2%

West Midlands. 11.1%

West Midlands. 11.1%

Merseyside. 11%

Lincolnshire. 11%

Northumberland 10.8%

Leicestershire. 10.6%

Suffolk: 10.4%

Staffordshire 9.6%

Bedfordshire 9.4%

Staffordshire 9.6%

Isle of Wight. 7.7%

For art and design the lower achieving counties are broadly in the midlands, the higher in SE Enland. 


Data published by the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) (9 August 2022) show that National 5, Highers and Advanced Highers pass rates have fallen from last year, when grades were based on teacher assessment. 

Advanced Higher (all subjects)

Entries were 28,220 in 2022, an increase of 5.3% from 26,795 in 2021. 

For art and design 

Entries were 1,280 in 2022, an increase of 8.9% from 1165 in 2021.


Summary of attainment for selected Advanced Higher qualifications from 2018 to 2022.

Art and Design (Expressive) 

Grades: A to C

90.4% (2018);   90.7% (2019);   96.9% (2020);   95.1% (2021);   94.4% (2022)

The overall attainment rate at grades A to C for Advanced Higher was 81.3% in 2022. This represents a decrease of 8.9 percentage points from 90.2% in 2021.

Art and Design (Expressive) 

Grade: A 

27.7% (2018);   29.9% (2019);  46.5% (2020);  47.2% (2021);  37.1% (2022)

The overall (all subjects combined) attainment rate for Advanced Highers at grade A was 33.7% in 2022. This represents a decrease of 17.3 from 51.0% in 2021. For art and design, the decrease of percentage points was, less: 10.1. This is 7.2  percentage points less than all subjects combined. 

SQA have also published an Equalities Monitoring Report which shows the gap between pupils in SIMD Quintile 1 (most deprived) and Quintile 5 (least deprived) obtaining A grades at Higher is now 23.2 % - a gap bigger than in any of the previous four years. This data is not subject specific.



What do these results mean for our learners?

Firstly, for many school leavers, this month is the start of a new chapter. But no matter where you are today, or what your steps aim to be, the grades awarded today reflect a body of achievement and learning that has been achieved in a pandemic. This cohort studied remotely, often socially distanced, and in national lockdowns – ‘Generation Covid’ must always be known for their resilience which we believe is an outstanding achievement to always be recognised and always applauded. 



We are pleased to see our subject grow in numbers (a contrast from the GCSE numbers that are reportedly falling) The growth has however, not impacted well on the gender and participation gap (i.e. the difference between the number of male and female candidates). However, the gender attainment gap has reduced slightly this year: In 2021 there was a 12.1% difference between males and females achieving A/A*; and in 2022 there is a 11.3% difference between candidates achieving A/A* grades. This represents a welcome closing of the gender attainment gap. 

This year with a higher number of candidates, for fewer university places, there has been concern that this will impact on less advantaged backgrounds. We await data on all future pathways in England, Northern Ireland and Wales. In Scotland we do know that outcomes have disproportionately affected deprived areas. Regionally, we can already see that the highest achieving counties are in the Southeast – the lowest are the Isle of Wight and Staffordshire. We also know that this year secondary comprehensives in England, have seen one of the biggest down lifts in A/A*, compared to 2020 and 2021. 


Michele Gregson, General Secretary of NSEAD says: 

‘There has been unprecedented and incredible disruption to students’ learning in the last 2.5 years. The resilience shown by the class of 2020-22 is and continues to be incredible. We have not yet completed the recovery from the pandemic, and the inequality between regions, between the state and independent sector continues to grow. We will continue to call on the next Prime minister to properly fund education, so that ‘lost learning’ and learning outcomes are properly resourced and funded. The next Prime minister must not neglect the mental health and wellbeing and economic prosperity of this generation – to which art and design makes such a major contribution. We are incredibly pleased to see the increase in art and design at A level (which has returned to the levels seen in previous years) and we continue to call on universities and employers to value art, craft and design as a vital and rigorous subject to study at every level. Today however, we celebrate all that has been achieved and attained. We applaud every student and teacher.'