The A-level pass rate has remained stable this year, but figures released today show a huge drop in students taking arts-based subjects and pose questions for the government’s “more rigorous” reforms.
Provisional figures released by the Joint Council for Qualifications (JCQ) released this morning show the proportion of A*-E grades at A-level are unchanged, with a 0.1 percentage point drop in the number of A* and A levels (8.2 per cent to 8.1 per cent). The slight decline is the fifth year top grades have fallen.
The number of entries for A-levels declined by 1.7 per cent, but that was in comparison to an overall 3.1 per cent decline in the number of 18 year olds in the UK.
The total entries for AS qualifications has dropped by 13.7 per cent compared with last year, although this varies widely per subject.
The proportion of A grades in AS subjects has increased by 1.1 percentage points to 21.3 per cent, and the total A-E grades has increased by 0.7 percentage points to 90.1 per cent.
There has also been stability for students taking the first sitting of reformed AS subjects. JCQ figures show there is no change at A grade (16.8 per cent) and a small increase of 0.2 percentage points at A-E (88.3 per cent).
JCQ compared results from this year’s reformed AS qualifications with the performance of 17-year-olds taking the legacy specification in 2015. JCQ described it as a “reasonable comparator”.
The findings come despite the government claiming its reformed subjects were “more challenging so pupils are better prepared for further academic or vocational study, or for work” – and raises questions about whether the reforms are “more rigorous”.
But Sharon Hague, senior vice president at Pearson, told Schools Week: “There is a popular misconception that the reforms were about making things harder than the current qualifications.
“You need to bear in mind that some of the qualifications were more than a decade old so the drivers around reform was about refreshing the content and making sure the specifications that people were following really reflected employers and higher education needed from young people.
“The idea wasn’t so much about upping the level of demand, it was about really making those qualifications up to date and I think a really good example of that is the sciences.”
Subjects such as computing, economics and sociology had the biggest increases.
But the figures have also revealed a large drop in students taking some arts-based subjects.
There has been a 15.3 per cent drop in the number of pupils taking performing or expressive arts at A-level, an 8.8 per cent drop in music and a 6.5 per cent drop in drama.
It follows concerns at GCSE level that the government’s EBacc policy is squeezing arts subjects out of the curriculum.
Michael Turner, director general of JCQ, said the drop in AS-subjects is down to the decoupling of AS and A-level qualifications in England.
But he said: “The reason why some subjects have declined by a greater proportion than others cannot be explained fully by the data, but whether students have prior experience of a subject from having studied it at GCSE may be a factor.
“It may also be influenced by the extent of emphasis that key stakeholders such as the higher education sector place on AS results. We will need data from future series to see what trends emerge.”
He added: “Overall, outcomes are relatively unchanged. However, the shift in entry patterns and the introduction of new specifications in reformed subjects could lead to greater volatility in year-on-year results in some schools and colleges than is experience in a typical year.”
Nick Gibb, minister for schools standards, said: “We want to make our country a place where there is no limit on anyone’s ambition or what they can achieve. It is hugely encouraging that this year sees a record 424,000 applicants already securing a place at one of our world-class universities, with increasing numbers from disadvantaged backgrounds gaining a place as well.”