A-levels 2017

17 Aug

By Ian Toone, Director of Policy and Research Services

A-level results day is always a significant day in the education calendar, as students reap the rewards of many years of learning, enabling them to cross the threshold into university, vocational training or employment. 

Voice applauds the achievements of all students whose commitment and dedication has enabled them to secure success in today’s A-level results.  Thanks are also due to the many teachers, support staff and school leaders who have worked hard to provide the necessary support to enable students to achieve their potential. 

As the Government’s A-level reforms in England continue to work their way through the system, with new and more challenging specifications in 13 A-level subjects being examined for the first time this year, it is good to see that the results remain fairly steady, with the overall pass rate for grades A*-E only down very slightly by 0.2% (97.9% this year compared with 98.1% last year), and tops grades of A* up by an equal percentage (8.3% this year compared with 8.1% last year). 

However, it is noticeable that the number of top grades in the 13 reformed subjects have fallen when compared both with legacy qualifications and also when compared with subjects which are yet to be reformed.  Combined A* and A grades in the reformed subjects (art and design, biology, business studies, chemistry, computing, economics, English language, English literature, English language and literature, history, physics, psychology and sociology) stand at 24.3%, which is 0.7% lower than these same subjects produced last year, and 6.3% lower than that achieved in unreformed subjects this year. 

This may be partly due to these subjects being generally more difficult anyway, combined with the additional difficulty of both teachers and students having to get to grips with a new syllabus.  To a large extent, Ofqual’s ‘comparable outcomes’ approach will have compensated for these factors, so the real gap may be even greater than it appears to be.   

Fortunately for this year’s students, there appears to be a surplus of university places, so there is less competition to achieve outstanding grades in order to secure a university place, and even the most prestigious universities are having to lower their entry criteria in order to fill courses.  Nevertheless, it is worrying that many teachers no longer know what a grade A or A* looks like, as grade boundaries and success criteria have become more opaque and inscrutable.

Another significant feature of this year’s results is that AS entries are down by 39.1% compared with last year.  This is entirely predictable, as part of the reform of A-levels involves ‘decoupling’ AS from A-level, so that all assessments have to be taken at the end of the course, rather than being able to ‘bank’ the AS result taken half way through the course and adding it to the A2 marks (taken in the second year) to complete the full A-level. 

 This appears to have had the very unfortunate effect of narrowing the curriculum.  Whereas in the past students could start with four AS level subjects and drop one after the first year, it now seems that, as a result of funding pressures, the need to maximise teaching time, and the impact of exam reforms, schools are no longer in a position to offer standalone AS levels, so students are having to decide on their three chosen A-levels from the outset.  This means that the curriculum is now not as broad and balanced as it used to be, and students are having to close their options at an earlier stage in the process. 

As these reforms apply mainly to England (with far fewer changes taking place to A-levels in Wales (see also here) and Northern Ireland), it remains to be seen whether the A-level ‘brand’ can retain its integrity and coherence as a world class qualification. 

However, let’s not belittle the enormous efforts being made by students and their teachers as they continue to do their very best in the face of ever-increasing standards. 

Today’s achievements are genuine and well-deserved.


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