By Ian Toone, Director of Policy and Research Services
Voice sends warm congratulations to students and teachers, whose hard work and dedication has secured success in this year’s A level exams.
At a time of significant change in curricula and qualifications, it is pleasing to see a level of stability in results, with A level outcomes at grades A*-E remaining unchanged at 98.1% compared with last year, and achievements at grades A* and A down by only 0.1% (from 25.9% last year to 25.8% this year).
Nevertheless, this also seems to reflect the efforts of the exams regulator, Ofqual. Turbulence in the world of qualifications normally leads to variability in outcomes. Therefore, there are many who would congratulate Ofqual on managing this uncertainty by ensuring that standards are maintained.
Whilst this is certainly the case, Ofqual has made no secret of the fact that great lengths have been taken to curb so-called ‘grade inflation’. This means that , in spite of all the pressures that students, teachers and school leaders are under to increase expectations and achieve greater and greater improvements in performance, this is being thwarted by a system which insists that outcomes should not, and will not, improve.
Unfortunately, the ultimate effect of this may be grade deflation as, with over 2 million GCE results overall, it is virtually impossible to keep the statistics perfectly static, so an emphasis on avoiding improvement will almost inevitably lead to decline. There is some evidence for this as the 0.1% drop in the highest grades repeats an identical decline observed in last year’s results, so it appears that creeping inflation is being exchanged for creeping deflation.
This has real implications for many students, teachers and school leaders.
Teachers and school leaders are increasingly being seen as only as good as their last set of exam results, so if outcomes appear to plateau or decline (albeit by the smallest of percentage points), rather than being rewarded for continuing to maintain high standards in difficult circumstances, teachers and headteachers can find themselves accused of failing to meet more demanding targets.
For students, too, attempting to achieve higher grades in the face of systemic attempts towards stasis increases stress, leading to increased risk of mental health difficulties and alienation, as the rewards which are promised for hard work and dedication fail to materialise.
A new feature of this year’s exams is that this is the first year in which AS level qualifications have been decoupled from A levels, at least in England.
In the past, candidates have been able to take an AS qualification in their first year of an A level course, and then top this up to a full A level by taking the A2 component in the second year, but this is no longer possible as the Government is insisting that all A level qualifications be completely linear, with all assessments taken at the end of the two year course.
Thus, whilst it is still possible to take an AS qualification in the first year, students have to repeat the assessment for this part of the subject content, alongside the assessment for the remaining content of the A level specification, in order to achieve a full A level at the end of the second year.
It is not surprising, therefore, that AS entries are down by 13.7% this year, and this figure masks considerable variation, with entries in some subjects being down by over 40%.
If this is the start of a new trend, it could cause problems for university admissions tutors and student progression, as universities will be less able to see how students are progressing halfway through their A level programmes (at the time when they are applying for university places), and students, likewise, will have less information to draw upon if they are thinking of dropping a subject at the end of Year 12 so that they can maximise their chances of success by concentrating on their best subjects in Year 13.
Both students and teachers continue to face enormous pressures, but the evidence from today’s results is that they are still responding positively and performing well, and deserve to be congratulated on their success.