Voice Community praises all those receiving A Level and AS Level results today.
After 18 months of interruption – lockdown, self-isolation, in-school and virtual learning, preparation for exams and teacher assessed grades; to everyone involved across the UK, from teachers and support staff through to parents and carers – a huge well done!
Once again, this year, learning has been hugely disrupted and the different circumstances around the country have meant that students have had very different experiences this year – with some doing more work in-school or undertaking assessed work and tests than others.
Schools, colleges, and the teaching staff have used a combination of coursework, mock exams and essays to decide grades and whilst the process has been subtly different in each of the nations it has meant that a range of evidence has been used to determine grades spreading the risk across all the work rather than pinning everything on a single exam. The head teacher of each centre had to sign off the results and say there is evidence to back them up.
The systems in place to manage grade inflation and to maintain standards would normally expect around 25% of students to receive A and A* grades. Last year this rose to 40% and ministers are triggering plans to fund additional university places, especially in areas such as medicine and dentistry. As a result of this uncertainty, some students are concerned their courses will be oversubscribed and are considering taking a gap year until the furore settles down.
COVID-19 has had an immense impact on education over the past 18 months with students spending around half a year of normal schooling – or around a third of their entire A Level course. Therefore, it is pleasantly surprising to note that there has been a slight increase in overall entries, up 5.1%, broadly in line with the size of the cohort. Around two-thirds of students take 3 A Levels which has remained consistent over the past five years.
The overall number of AS entries now seems to have begun to level off following a precipitous fall after the AS Level was decoupled from the A Level in England. Entries have continued to fall slightly in Wales (-8%) where the AS Level remains an integral part of the course, and Northern Ireland (-12.8%), most likely reflecting the impact of decoupling from the main A Level in England.
It comes as no surprise that Mathematics continues to be the most popular subject for students at A Level, securing 11.8% of all A Level entries (97,690 candidates). Other popular subjects included History, up 5.6% (44,898) and Psychology, which saw both an increase in the number of entries (up 8.6% to 71,235 entries) and an increase in achievement too with 7.8% more getting the highest grades.
Geography entries saw the largest increase across all large-entry subjects, up 16.8% in 2021 and science entries were also in the top ten increases with: Biology up 7.6%; Physics up 7.4% and Chemistry up 6.9%.
English Language and English Literature both saw significant drops in popularity down 3.4% and 4.6% respectively continuing the general downward trend of the past decade. Over the past decade the numbers of candidates being entered for modern foreign languages, especially French and German have dropped almost 50% and this year we continued to see significant drops in entries with German now accounting for just 2708 entries.
Arts subjects continue their overall downward decline, probably as a direct result of fewer students taking the subjects at GCSE with news reports stating that A Level Music could cease to be taught in ten years’ time. The increasing focus on ‘academic’ subjects for the benefit of school league tables is clearly having an impact here.
Results & stats
There has been a particular effort by teachers and schools to ensure that after last year’s ‘algorithm’ debacle, the grades awarded are an accurate and fair representation of student achievement, despite last minute changes to courses with exams being cancelled and content being curtailed once again. However, these grades are very different to those that might have been achieved in an exam since they take account of a range of sources of evidence produced over the whole course and are not reliant on student performance ‘on the day.’ With Simon Lebus, interim chairman of the exams watchdog, Ofqual, saying students had been “fairly treated” and the grades, based on teachers’ judgements were this year “likely to give a much more accurate and substantial reflection of what their students are capable of achieving.” And all of the system checks and balances resulted in fewer than 1% of all grades being changed.
The numbers of students receiving the top grades has risen by 4.8% for A* and 6.3% for A grades over 2020 statistics, although overall pass rates declined slightly by 0.2%.
Female students outperformed male students across the UK (1.6% in England, 0.9% in Northern Ireland, and 0.9% in Wales) and overtook male students for the first time in the number of A* grades achieved in mathematics.
Achievement is achievement
Yet again this year, there has been much talk of a record year for top A-level grades leading to claims of “grade inflation” and even “’pass all’ culture” in the media with fears that results could put pressure on some university courses. All of this speculation has highlighted concerns raised by some students about the value of their grades in years to come.
We must not downplay the circumstances of the last 18 months and should instead focus on the tremendous effort that students and staff have expended. It is important to recognise the adversity that has been overcome and to commend this year’s achievement for the genuine success that it is.
Following the disruption of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Government decided that exams would not go ahead as planned, across England, Wales and Northern Ireland. A system was devised for students’ grades to be based on a professional assessment of all of the evidence by the schools or college of the content they have covered. This allowed for a high degree of flexibility for schools and colleges to take account of the varying levels of disruption experienced by students.