A-level pass grades fall for first time in three years after introduction of new exams

More than one in four entrants scored at least an A grade this year - but those undertaking dramatically reformed courses more likely to come away without a grade

Rachael Pells
Education Correspondent
Thursday 17 August 2017 08:14 BST
Thousands of teenagers across the country receive their A level results on Thursday
Thousands of teenagers across the country receive their A level results on Thursday (Getty)

The number of pupils gaining pass grades at A-level has fallen for the first time in three years, following the introduction of a tough a new curriculum.

A-levels in 13 core subjects including English, sciences and economics - which all had coursework removed in favour of final exams - saw a fall of 0.5 per cent for A*-E grades - equivalent to thousands of pupils nationwide.

The overall A*-E pass rate, including non-reformed subjects, fell by 0.2 percentage points to 97.9 per cent, according to national figures published by the Joint Council for Qualifications (JCQ).

However, the number of pupils scoring an A* or A this summer increased to 26.3 per cent, up 0.5 percentage points on 2016.

The number of top grades awarded in subjects that have not been reformed rose for the first time in years, with more than one in four entries scoring an A grade overall.

This year’s candidates were the first to sit a new, linear A-level curriculum. Unlike in previous years, where students could prepare coursework and sit exams at the end of the AS year, this year’s cohort are to be graded solely on exams taken at the end of the two-year course.

Exam boards have been criticised for a number of hiccups found in rolling out the new courses, however, prompting complaints that this year’s cohort were forced to be “guinea pigs”, facing increased pressure on them to perform.

JCQ Director General, Michael Turner, said while there had “certainly been some change to the entry patterns”, it was “too early to draw conclusions” from the fall in pass grades in reformed subjects.

Issuing a statement on the results, he said: “Today is about congratulating the hundreds of thousands of students on their efforts and results and ensuring they get the right support they need to embark on the next stage of their lives.

”The overall UK picture for A-levels this year is steady, with small increases in the top grades.

“There may be several factors influencing the performance of males and females in reformed A-levels in England, and of course it is too early to draw any firm conclusion. However, it will be interesting to see if the pattern continues as we progress through the reform timetable.”

In total, 26.3 per cent of A-level entries scored an A* or A this summer, up 0.5 percentage points on 2016.

It is the first time the A*-A pass rate has risen since 2011.

The lead historically enjoyed by girls over boys in the top grades has been overturned for the first time in years.

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Last year the proportion of girls who got A or higher was 0.3 percentage points more than the proportion of boys (26 per cent girls, 25.7 per cent boys). This year, boys lead girls by 0.5 percentage points.

Boys have been narrowing this gap steadily since 2008.Boys have pulled further ahead in scoring A* and A grades, but the gender gap overall is said to be narrowing with the introduction of the reformed courses.

The number of 18-year-olds entering into A-levels this year fell by 1.7 per cent this year.

Figures showed a huge spike in the number of entries for a small range of subjects, including computing, with a 33 per cent rise in the number of A-level students sitting the exam in 2017 compared with last year. This included a 34 per cent increase in female students - 816, up from 609 in 2016.

There was a 12.8 per cent increase in the number taking political studies, and a 1.7 per cent rise in those taking Spanish at A-level.

But there were dips in the take-up of other languages - with a 2.1 per cent drop in those doing French and a 4.7 per cent decrease in students sitting German.

Elsewhere, entries for history - one of the most popular A-levels by number of students - fell by 8.1 per cent.

As has been the case in previous years, maths proved to be the most popular subject, followed by English, including Literature and Language, Biology and Psychology.

Data showed a 3.3 per cent increase in entries for maths, but there was a significant drop in those sitting English.

This included a drop of 10.2 per cent in English language, 4.7 per cent for literature, and 11.1 per cent for the combined English language and literature subject.

Overall, entries for English subjects saw a 7.2 per cent decrease.

Commenting on the results, Geoff Barton, General Secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, blamed school budget cuts for a decline in creative subject uptake.

"The government must get to grips with the continuing decline in entries to music, drama, French and German," he said.

“These subjects are vitally important to the future of young people and to the economy. Drama and music underpin our cultural life and creative industries which are worth a fortune to the country.

"French and German are essential to the transaction of international trade and will be particularly important in post-Brexit Britain.

“However, the level of funding for post-16 education is simply not sufficient to sustain courses with relatively small numbers of students, and many schools and colleges have no alternative other than to cut these courses. Increasingly, they will be available only in the private sector, making a mockery of the government’s claim to be promoting social mobility.

Minister for School Standards, Nick Gibb, said: “The increase in entries to facilitating subjects, those that give students the greatest choice of options at university, mean even more young people will have access to all the opportunities higher education provides.

“There has been a strong uptake in core subjects, such as maths, which continues to be the most popular A-level with maths and further maths having nearly 25 per cent more entries than in 2010. This and increasing entries to science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) subjects bodes well for the economic prosperity of our country. It will help to grow our workforce in these sectors, allowing young people to secure well paid jobs and compete in the global jobs market of post Brexit Britain.

“Increasing the number of girls studying STEM subjects has been an important objective of the Government, so it is particularly pleasing to see that more young women are taking STEM subjects and that for the first time since 2004 there are more young women than young men studying chemistry. I hope everyone receiving their results will go on to successful careers.”

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