16 Aug 2012

Top A-level grades fall for first time in 21 years

The proportion of students receiving top grades at A-level falls after years of successive rises, following changes in the way exams are marked.

Top grades at A Level fall for first time in 21 years

Around one in four exams were awarded an A or A* this year, a slight drop compared to last year.

Thursday’s figures also show that fewer students received the top A* grade that was introduced three years ago.

Around 335,000 students in England, Wales and Northern Ireland are receiving their A-level results today. In total, 26.6 per cent of the exams were given an A or A*, down from 27 per cent in 2011 – a record drop of 0.4 per cent.

The last time that the number of students receiving top grades dropped was between 1990 and 1991 when it fell 0.1 per cent to 11.9 per cent.

Why has the number of top grades fallen?

The fall has been attributed to results in Northern Ireland, which are thought to have fallen as a result of a broader intake of students at A-level, some of whom achieved lower grades.

But it is also a result of changes in the way exams are marked. The exams watchdog, Ofqual, this year asked exam boards to ration top grades, by comparing students’ grades with their previous performance at AS level and justifying any significant increase. This was an attempt to curb so-called “grade inflation” and accusations of exams getting easier, after a successive rise in the number of pupils achieving A grades in previous years.

Boys overtook girls at A* grade for the first time, with 8 per cent attaining the top mark, compared to 7.9 per cent of girls. However more girls achieved A grade than boys.

The figures published by the Joint Council for Qualifications also show that the overall A* to E pass rate has risen for the 30th year in a row, with 98 per cent of exams being awarded at least an E, a 0.2 per cent rise on last year. There was a drop in the number of students taking modern language exams, but a rise in STEM subjects, such as maths and science.

Read more from Social Affairs Editor Jackie Long: Does the ‘A’ in A-level now stand for anxiety?

Tom Daley, who won a bronze medal for Britain in the Olympics, tweeted that he got two A grades and one A* in photography after studying at Plymouth College. Zoe Smith, who broke the British weight-lifting record for her category, said that she had to pull out of school to concentrate on her sport [see below].

While many will be celebrating, others still face a scramble to secure a university place with more than 10,000 people having already applied for places through clearing.

For the first time this year, universities can take an unlimited number of students with AAB grades or higher, but they are not obliged to. Some teachers warned that the fall in the number of students achieving top grades could result in a fall in university admissions and that some students could have been penalised by the capping of top marks.

Initial figures from Ucas show almost a 7 per cent drop in the numbers of students who have already had their places confirmed. Almost 358,000 students had their university applications accepted overnight.

English students starting university this year will be the first to face fees of up to £9,000.

Paul de Kort, head of sixth form at Beaumont School, Hertforshire, said pupils at his school who had failed to get the required grades were still accepted on to the courses. “I was quite pessimistic at first, but then I saw pupils’ smiling faces this morning and they told me they had logged onto Ucas and saw they were accepted overnight,” he told Channel 4 News. “I was surprised but obviously very pleased.”

The higher rate of acceptance could be a result of fewer applications for courses as well as fewer students achieving top grades. “I think it’s partly down to the unpredictability created by the new AAB change, but obviously there’s only a certain number of them around and I don’t think any university can afford to have less on their books than they’d planned to,” added Mr de Kort.

Clearing advice from Ucas:
– Look on track on the Ucas website from 8am to check the status of your application and to get your clearing number, if you become eligible.
– This year you will also receive an email either confirming your place, or letting you know if you are unplaced.
– Make sure that you are available to speak to universities and colleges: treat your clearing application like a job application and deal with it yourself. Don’t leave it to your parents or friends to sort out.
– Start contacting the universities and colleges about the courses that interest you as soon as you can. An institution that is interested in you will ask for details such as your clearing number and your personal ID. You will probably also be asked questions about your exam results.
– Vacancies are listed at ucas.com – make sure that the content of the course meets your needs, and check the entry requirements.
– If your exam results are better than you expected you may be able to use adjustment. This service is accessed through track and allows applicants who meet and exceed the conditions of their firm choice to reconsider where and what to study study while retaining the option of their original place.

Speaking at the UCAS call centre in Cheltenham University Minister David Willetts said he was not worried by the 7 per cent drop in the number of students that have been accepted onto their university course compared to the same time last year.

“We’ll have to see how things pan out during the day, but my understanding is that we’ve got almost 300,000 prospective students who have now had their places confirmed and I think that is great progress for this time in the day,” he said.

“We will have to see how things develop, but we’re optimistic that the system will work in the way that it will and that through clearing perhaps people that haven’t necessarily got their university first choice are still able to secure a place.”

He also insisted that despite this year’s dip in unversity applications, thought to be because of the increase in tuition fees, applying to go to university was at its second highest level.

‘Positive trends’

Brian Lightman, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said the drop in A grades was a “minor fluctuation”.

“The important point here is, if you look at the trend of improvements in schools, the numbers now succeeding at GCSE and accessing A-levels has been a success story of our education system.”

Mr Lightman added that there were more people taking A-levels this year and large numbers of students getting “very good results”, and that the fall in the very top grades was not significant. “All of these trends are positive. The minor fluctuation is not a significant issue to worry about,” he added.


, ,