The class of 2012 recorded the biggest drop in top grades in the history of A-levels today – and the first for 20 years – prompting claims from teachers that exam boards have succumbed to political pressure to reverse grade inflation.
Thousands of teenagers failed to snap up their university places today as a result of failing to achieve the grades demanded by universities – a result of the fall in top grades, universities said.
Exam boards are now bracing themselves for a flood of appeals against grades.
The results of the 335,000 candidates who sat the exams this summer showed that the percentage of A-grades awarded had dipped from 27 per cent to 26.6 per cent. The percentage of A* grade passes also fell from 8.2 per cent to 7.9 per cent.
The fall comes against a background of the Education Secretary Michael Gove warning of the dangers of grade inflation and “dumbing down” of exams. The exams regulator Ofqual has meanwhile indicated that grades and pass rates should be “roughly” the same as last year.
Teachers queried the fall. “Yet again it appears that outcomes are being manipulated to suit the Government’s agenda rather than the interests of students,” said Ian Toone, education officer of Voice - the “no strike” teachers’ union.
“The official explanation (for the drop in a grade passes) is that this year’s [students] cohort is weaker but this flies in the face of interference from the Government and...Ofqual - which have taken deliberate steps to curb so-called ‘grade inflation’ by introducing more rigorous rules which have effectively capped the proportion of higher grades that can be awarded.
“There is a risk that such interference by Government may cause people to lose confidence in the qualifications system as well as thwarting the life chances of many students who have worked hard in their attempts to achieve success.”
Academics had to look back two decades for the last time top grades dropped - and then it was only 0.1 percentage points to 11.0 per cent in 1991. Education experts said they could not recall a bigger drop in the 50-year history of awarding grades at A-level.
Exam boards were quick to insist yesterday they had not succumbed to any external pressure to avoid rises.
Dr Mary Bousted, general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, said: “We hope this year’s grades are a true reflection of how well students have done and that none of the results have been down-graded in an attempt to make A-levels look tougher.”
Exam boards said that this year’s cohort (year group) could have been weaker than previous years as a result of more teenagers staying on at school after 16 because of the lack of job prospects. In previous years, these young people would not have considered themselves candidates for A-levels, they suggested.
Figures showed the number of candidates taking A-levels had risen by 1.5 per cent.
“The economy two years ago wasn’t a lot different to what it is now,” said Andrew Hall, chief executive of the Assessment and Qualifications Alliance, the biggest exam board.
The overall pass rate rose again rose for the 30th year in succession - going up 0.2 percentage points to 98 per cent.
Ofqual has insisted that any student worth a top grade would still achieve it under its “comparative outcome” policy - whereby it says grades should be roughly similar to those in past years.
Exam boards added they had done “nothing different” this year in marking the papers.
Maths and the classics (Greek and Latin) were the two subjects with the biggest increases in take-up (7.6% and 7.5% respectively).
Figures also showed just over half the independent school entries had received an A or A* grade pass (%0.1 per cent) compared to 22 per cent from state schools and colleges.
Schools Minister Nick Gibb said he was “so encouraged that the number of students pursuing rigorous subjects such as maths and physics continues to rise”.
Stephen Twigg, Labour’s education spokesman, described the results as “impressive”, adding that they were due to “better teaching. better school leadership, Labour’s relentless focus on literacy and numeracy and record investment in schools”.
“While exams must remain robust and challenging, the Government must also ensure that this legacy is not undermined by reforms that are taking us in the wrong direction on standards.”
Mr Gove is reviewing A-levels and wants universities to play a bigger role in drawing up the syllabus plus a return to a concentration on the final exam at the end of two years study.
Boys edge out girls in winning top grade
Boys are outperforming girls for the first time in achieving the top grade at A-level – although still have some way to go to match girls’ overall success.
Eight per cent of boys were awarded A* grades, just ahead of girls, where 7.9 per cent got the top grade. At B-grade, 54.7 per cent of girls’ scripts awarded that or better, compared to 50.2 per cent of boys.
The subjects with the highest proportion of female were, in order, performing arts, Welsh and sociology, while those attracting the highest proportion of boys were computing, physics and other sciences.