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A-level pass grades hit eight-year low after major exam reforms

The number of students securing A* grades this year has also fallen 

Eleanor Busby
Education Correspondent
Thursday 16 August 2018 16:55 BST
A-level results day: The most common questions answered

The number of students gaining pass grades at A-level has dropped to its lowest point in eight years amid major exam reforms.

This is the second year that students in England have received grades in a number of reformed A-levels, which have moved away from coursework and modules to final exams after two years.

The overall A* to E pass rate in the UK of all subjects fell to 97.6 per cent, compared to 97.9 per cent last year, the national figures published by the Joint Council for Qualifications (JCQ) revealed.

The proportion of students in England, Wales and Northern Ireland who secured the top grade of A* also dropped to 8 per cent this year – its lowest level since 2013.

However, the number of students awarded an A* or A this summer increased slightly to 26.4 per cent – the highest proportion for six years – despite the reforms.

But Michael Turner, director general of the JCQ, insisted that the overall picture shown by the results was “one of national stability during a period of significant reform”.

For the second year running, boys outperformed girls at the top grades. This year, 26.6 per cent of exam entries for boys were awarded A* or A grades, compared to 26.2 per cent for girls.

Experts had predicted that the linear structure of the new qualifications in England – with less coursework and AS levels no longer counting towards the final A-level grade – would favour boys.

The statistics also show that Chinese at A-level is now more popular among sixth formers than German. The number of students opting to study German, French and Spanish fell by 7.9 per cent.

And Stem subjects (science, technology, engineering and maths) are growing in popularity, with more than a third (36.2 per cent) of all A-level entries in these subjects this year.

But there have been a number of drops in entries to humanities subjects – including geography which saw an 11.3 per cent fall in entries, the lowest level in four years.

The figures come in the wake of a major exams overhaul, with 24 A-level subjects now reformed.

Grades have been awarded for the first time this summer for 11 new A-levels – including the languages, geography, dance, drama and theatre, music, PE and religious studies.

Last year, students in England took more challenging exams in 13 reformed A-level subjects. The remaining subjects are being changed over the next two years.

Commenting on the results, Geoff Barton, head of the Association of School and College Leaders, said: “The sheer weight of these reforms has placed an intolerable additional strain on staff and students and we have no doubt that this has affected the mental health and wellbeing of a proportion of young people and teachers.

“The government must pay heed and ensure that any future reforms are introduced in a more manageable and considered manner.”

Damian Hinds, education secretary, rejected suggestions that the changes meant that students were not able to fully demonstrate their abilities.

He said: “Reformed A-levels help to prepare young people better for what comes next, which for many of them will be going to university and for others, other routes of further study.

“Doing A-levels is a complete course over two years, and without having to do public exams at the end of the lower sixth year, that does enable you to look at the subject as a whole.”

As the A-level results were published, separate figures revealed that fewer students have been accepted on to UK degree courses this year.

The Ucas data shows that 411,860 students had taken up university places – down 1 per cent on the same point last year.

A fall in the number of 18-year-olds, due to a lower birth rate in 2000, means universities are looking to fill their places through clearing – the Ucas system used to fill unallocated course places.

This year, tens of thousands of courses were listed on the Ucas clearing website, including several postings from top Russell Group universities

There has also been a rise in unconditional offers – with most recent figures showing that one in eight people accepted to full-time university courses got there through clearing.

Mr Hinds said he was “concerned” about the rate of growth that seen in unconditional offers. “That’s why the Office for Students is looking carefully at this issue and they will come back with their findings and they will make recommendations if anything further needs to be done,” he added.

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