A-level results day: Class of 2015 has 'fallen victim to education cuts', say headteachers

Traditional disciplines performed well, but subjects like music suffered

Richard Garner
Thursday 13 August 2015 19:33 BST
Twins Rory, left, and Patrick Butler celebrate their A-level results at Campbell College in Belfast
Twins Rory, left, and Patrick Butler celebrate their A-level results at Campbell College in Belfast (PA)

The class of 2015 - the 280,000 or so teenagers who got their A-level results - have fallen victim to cuts in education spending, according to headteachers’ leaders.

Schools and sixth-form colleges “simply cannot afford the teachers” for key subject areas like music, law, design and technology and German, said Malcolm Trobe, deputy general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders.

He was speaking as A-level results showed a drift by teenagers towards taking the traditional academic subjects - with geography candidates going up by 12.7 per cent, history by 7.1 per cent and English literature by 4.9 per cent. Maths, too, showed a rise of 4.4 per cent confirming it as the most popular A-level subject for today’s teenagers for the second year running.

However, this was counterbalanced by falls in music of 7.2 per cent, law of 6.8 per cent, German of 4.3 per cent and design and technology by 3.3 per cent.

“All of these subjects are important in their own right for a range of students,” said Mr Trobe, “but they generate smaller classes.

“We are extremely concerned that this year’s A-level and AS-level (the exam taken by students at the end of the first year of the sixth-form and worth half an A-level at present) figures show an emerging pattern which reflects a decrease in these courses.

“This reduces the curriculum choice available to students and has an impact on sectors which are very important to the country. Music, for instance, is a very important industry and design and technology is vital in a range of professions.”

Kevin Courtney, deputy general secretary of the National Union of Teachers, added: “Schools and colleges are facing substantial real terms funding cuts for post-16 education and it is vital that those cuts are reversed to ensure that future cohorts of learners are not disadvantaged.”

However, the Department for Education said it had ended the “unfair difference” in funding post-16 education between schools and colleges “meaning every full-time student can study a full timetable of courses”.

In particular, it singled out £276 million earmarked for music education aimed at ensuring all young people had access to a high quality music education.

The trend towards more academic subjects did not stretch to the sciences, though, with chemistry (down 1,6 per cent), biology (1.2 per cent) and physics (1.1 per cent) all showing a decline.

Dr Adam Marshall, of the British Chambers of Commerce, said: “The skills gap could be set to widen as we’ve seen the take-up of sciences fall even further. We need to do all we can to increase participation and interest in science related subjects. We could start by addressing the growing gender gap as there are almost four times more male pupils taking physics than females.”

There was a mixed picture over modern foreign languages with Spanish record the second highest rise of any subject of 14.4 per cent - but German slumping badly - down 4.3 per cent.

“Despite languages being crucial for life and work in an increasingly connected world, A-level entry figures remain disappointingly low for yet another year,” said Vicky Gough, schools adviser to the British Council.

Computing saw the biggest rise in uptake of all with a 29.1 per cent increase - but there were 10 times as many male new entrants as women, experts revealed.

Lesley Davies, from Pearson’s - the UK’s largest awarding organisation, said: “I think it’s great to see computing going up.” She said that gaming and associated industries were expanding with the result that teenagers believed it was “cool to code”.

The DfE estimated that the number of students studying the “facilitating subjects” was up by 15,000 this year - and 13 .3 per cent since the “EBacc” - ranking schools in league table on their performance in traditional academic subjects - was introduced.

“As a result thousands more pupils from all backgrounds are studying subjects that will secure them a place at a top university or an apprenticeship and that will help to secure well paid employment,” said Schools Minister Nick Gibb.

However, Richard Cairns, head of top fee-paying school Brighton College, argued: “We must not lose sight of the needs of those for whom a rigorous academic education is inappropriate.

“Yes, our country needs highly educated scientists, engineers and teachers but it also needs skilled technicians.”

The figures showed a two per cent rise in the number of A-levels sat this year despite a drop in the size of the age cohort. Andrew Hall, of the AQA exam board, put this down to the new requirement to stay on in education until 18.

Overall, the results showed an increase in the overall pass rate of 0.1 per cent - taking it back to the record level of 98.1 per cent established in 2013 which was followed by the first fall for more than 20 years last year. There was a slight fall in the percentage of A*/A grades awarded for the fourth year running from 26 per cent to 25.9 per cent. However, the percentage of A* to C grades awarded rose significantly from 76.7 per cent to 77.3 per cent

At A* grade boys had increased the gap between them and girls from 0.6 per cent to 0.9 per cent. However, at every other level girls were ahead.

Interestingly, a breakdown of the figures showed that - while the percentage of top grades awarded was higher in the south - the overall pass rate was better in the north.

Exam board sources said the rise in the pass rate was “heartening” because the increase in the numbers taking A-levels meant the ability range taking the exam was likely to be wider.

Exam board bosses were stressing that the results showed that A-levels remained “stable” with only minor fluctuations in results in a a year when the exam had seen little or no changes. That will not be the case next year when the new tougher A-levels relying more on end-of-year tests start to kick in.

Case Study: Maan Al-Yasiri

A year ago, 18-year-old Maan Al-Yasiri was planning to skip university and get a job after finishing his A-levels.

Now he is set to study history and politics at Brasenose College, Oxford, after scoring A grades in his English and history A-levels and a B in economics.

Maan, whose family fled Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and who first came to the UK aged five, says the change came after speaking to a fellow student, also from Iraq, in the year above at his school who went on to study medicine at Cambridge.

He said: “She told me that when she was growing up, she had never imagined that she’d go to Cambridge. She was from exactly the same background as me and it made me realise that Oxford could be an option for me.”

But Maan was rejected without even being invited for an interview. It was only after a teacher at his school, Ark Putney Academy in south-west London, contacted the university that admissions tutors reconsidered and invited Maan for an interview.

He said: “I’d lived in the UK with my mum and uncles but in Year 10 [the first year of GCSEs] my mum remarried and got a job in Dubai so we moved there. I had to study for my GCSEs on my own using textbooks and the internet. I took four – maths, English, science and history.

“Normally students who apply to Oxford might have up to 15 GCSEs but I only have seven – three I took early in Year 10 before we left the UK and the four I took myself.

“Because I had been rejected to start with I felt I was just there to make up the numbers so I just went in, tried my best and enjoyed my three days in Oxford. I couldn’t believe it when they offered me a place.”

After a year, Maan’s mother and his new stepfather moved to Iraq and Maan returned to the UK, at first living with an uncle and then lodging with a family.

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