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No surprises on A-level results day – and that’s a good thing

REUTERS/Peter Nicholls

No surprises on A-level results day – and that’s a good thing

A-level results day is here and with its dawn have arrived pictures of jubilant young people jumping for joy. The most amount of students ever were accepted into university on A-level results day according to the University and College Admission Service. More than 409,000 students had places confirmed, a 3% rise on 2014.

During the week running up to results day, the exams regulator Ofqual has attempted to allay concerns about the marking of papers that hang over the process from 2014, and sought to reassure the public about the quality of work provided by England’s examination boards.

But as it turned out nothing much happened in 2015 – which actually comes as quite a relief. All of the papers were marked on time and there were no huge issues like the one in Scotland, where an exceedingly difficult mathematics paper meant a fairly low pass score.

Overall, the percentage of students who achieved each grade did not move much compared to last year – and most subjects remained stable. The number of A-levels taken has risen 2% compared with 2014, from 833,807 to 850,749. This potentially reflects the impending changes to university entry from 2016 and possible future fee increases above £9,000 a year; getting in now may reduce someone’s student debt in the long term.

There are some minor changes to particular subjects, but fears that abolition of the end of January resits would affect the proportion of A* grades has not materialised: the proportion of A* grades awarded stayed the same at 8.2%. The overall pass rate was 98.1%, just a 0.1% increase on 2014.

Mathematics retains its crown as the most popular A-level (10.9% of all entries) with English in second place, a mere 0.4% behind, and biology taking third place with a 7.5% share of entries.

The proportion of total entries coming from so-called facilitating subjects preferred by Russell Group universities has remained relatively steady and they make up 51% of all entries. However, as the graph below shows there were small increases in geography (up 4,188), history (up 3,717) and English literature (3,393).

An increase was expected as schools take up the EBacc model which includes English, maths, two sciences, a humanity (history and geography), and languages. With the notable increase in the those taking the largest entry subject, mathematics (up 3,895), it is easy to forget the patchy history of this qualification: in 2001 only 45.4% of all candidates achieved a C or above. In 2015 it was 79.8%. After a review of the syllabus in 2004, trust was regained in the qualification and entry figures have risen consistently year after year.

Although the changes are small, the trends this year suggest that the emphasis by the former secretary of state for education, Michael Gove, on the Russell Group’s facilitating subjects has, to a modest extent, paid off.

Critical thinking suffers

The most prominent negative change has been seen in general studies, with the number of entries down 24.25%. Decreases were also seen in music and law, but neither were as dramatic as general studies.

This year may be the final nail in the coffin for critical thinking at A-level; its entry figures peaked at 2,529 in 2008 but now they are very low (just 236 in 2015). Historically, it has suffered as a result of being lumped with general studies and perceived as a soft option. In reality, there was potential for this subject to be a way to encourage the deeper thinking championed by Gove.

Research by Cambridge Assessment found that students who took critical thinking did better across their other subjects. With speculation for many years about an English population that lacks the ability to think independently and critically, perhaps critical thinking was a way to challenge this; but that seems unlikely to happen as exam boards, such as AQA, decide to drop it from their syllabuses.

AS-levels steady too

At AS-level, the exams taken in Year 12, the penultimate year of school, the results have again remained relatively stable. The percentage of A grades awarded increased 0.3% to 20.2% and A-E increased 0.6% to 89.4%. But as expected – due to the known 2.1% drop in the number of 17-year-olds across the country – the number of AS entries declined 1.9% to 1,385,901.

It will only be in August 2017 that we may see a more dramatic picture at AS level; one which reflects the decoupling of the AS from the A-level and determines its strength to stand alone against the dominance of the two-year qualification.

The outcomes are stable and so the lack of fireworks this year may help to reduce the annual damage directed against the integrity of our public examinations system every August. Perhaps the broader media could now congratulate all those who have achieved their goals today. Despite the continual questioning of standards, A-levels and AS levels are challenging qualifications. If we deride the results, we deride the ability and efforts of those who have chosen to take these exams; let them celebrate – or commiserate – and move on.

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