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Forget the myths. What's the truth about A-levels?

Every year, results day is plagued by complaints that exams are getting easier and the scramble for university places is becoming more intense. But what's the real story? Jack Grove reports

Every year, results day is plagued by complaints that exams are getting easier and the scramble for university places is becoming more intense. But what's the real story? Jack Grove reports

A-level results day can sometimes feel like Groundhog Day: the same story greets you over the breakfast table year after year. Every August we learn passes have risen to another record high, sparking an "intense battle" for university places.

According to the headlines, up to 250,000 applicants could miss out on university this year, while thousands of state-school pupils are being entered for "soft" options at A-level to boost results. But is the picture really so gloomy? Here, we consider whether the claims and assumptions made about A-levels stand up to scrutiny.

'You need A-levels to do a degree'

The media's obsession with A-levels carries the implicit assumption that they are the be-all and end-all when it comes to university entry. Not so. In fact, almost half (48.5 per cent) of applicants accepted to courses at UK higher education institutions via admissions service Ucas in 2009 did not have A-levels at all.

Alongside the significant proportion of applicants holding overseas and Scottish qualifications, students are increasingly taking advantage of a range of vocational qualifications that can allow entry to degree courses. In 2009, 11.4 per cent of successful applicants were accepted with only BTECs - more than double the rate 10 years earlier.

Kate Westmacott, qualifications information review project manager at Ucas, says: "There is more variety out there and students have increasingly moved to a range of qualifications. For instance, 67.6 per cent of students applied with just A-levels in 1999, but that had fallen to 49.8 per cent by 2009."

'More students are taking "soft" subjects'

Well, yes, it is true that media studies is still going strong. A total of 33,375 sixth-formers took the subject last year - but that was down 1.3 per cent on 2009. Interestingly, only 12.5 per cent of candidates achieved an A* or A in this so-called "soft" subject, compared with the 44.8 per cent of pupils who gained the same grades in mathematics.

But it is the traditional "tough" A-level subjects that have proved most popular in recent years. For example, the number of further maths candidates jumped 11.5 per cent last year to 11,682 - the highest percentage increase for any subject in 2010. This was closely followed by economics and maths, which enjoyed increases of 9 per cent and 6.2 per cent respectively.

The sciences also enjoyed renewed interest: the number of A-level physics candidates rose 5.2 per cent to 30,976; chemistry was up 3.7 per cent to 44,501; and biology had 4.3 per cent more students at 57,854.

Libby Steele, head of education at the Royal Society, says recent rises have not yet made up the long-term drop in science and maths candidates, but "the numbers are starting to improve and we welcome this.

"But you have to look beyond them to the percentage of each cohort taking maths and science," she adds. "More students are taking A-levels, but the numbers studying maths and science have not increased proportionately."

Compared with the mini-revival in science, technology, engineering and mathematics - so-called STEM subjects - students are shunning courses derided by some parts of the media as easy ways to get grade As. The biggest loser last year was critical thinking, the number of candidates for which dropped 16.4 per cent to a mere 2,082, while the numbers taking PE and communication studies also fell.

'It's harder than ever to get a place at university'

The apparently ever-improving A-level results are no guarantee of access to higher education. More than 210,000 would-be students were left without university places in 2010, the headlines screamed last year.

With limited places and growing demand, who could not feel for the legions of young people missing out on tertiary education?

To illustrate the shortage of places and the "unfairness" of the system, stories were often conflated with tales of students such as 18-year-old Ben Scheffer, a public schoolboy from Brighton who failed to get a single offer despite securing three A*s and three As last year.

Many such stories are "fairly mythical", claims Sir Steve Smith, vice-chancellor of Exeter University and former president of Universities UK. "They usually reflect bad advice by schools, where the individual has no insurance offer as back-up."

And under Government plans to ease restrictions on student numbers, "this will never happen" as institutions will be free to accept as many AAB students as they can attract, he says.

Sir Steve adds that 2010's headline figure of 210,000 applicants was also much higher than the number finally left disappointed. Almost half - 97,000 - declined offers or withdrew from the process, which left about 113,000 candidates unplaced from the 697,351 who applied last year. This is a considerable increase on the 79,000 who failed to gain places in 2009.

But the number of places on offer has increased over time: the ratio of applicants to acceptances was 1.4 to 1 last year - only a slight change from the 1.3 to 1 ratio in each of the previous five years.

Ucas chief executive Mary Curnock Cook argues that the number of unsuccessful applicants has not grown massively despite popular belief. She says a certain failure rate is inevitable.

"These are the people on the margins of being qualified for higher education," she says. "We also get a lot of people who put in poor applications. If they do not (go to) any trouble with their applications, are they really making an effort to go to university?"

'You need top grades to get into a top university'

It is commonly assumed that the elite Russell Group of research-intensive universities secure all the students with top grades. But official figures paint a different picture.

Research published in July by the Higher Education Funding Council for England shows that the destination of high-achieving A-level students is not so easy to predict.

The data shows that many AAB students attend institutions that do not traditionally top the university rankings. A study by the Higher Education Careers Services Unit found that Oxford Brookes, Northumbria, Glasgow Caledonian and Robert Gordon universities all sit in the "high-tariff" Ucas bracket, as does Queen Margaret University in Edinburgh.

Meanwhile, fewer than half of the students at five Russell Group universities had AAB grades or better, with just 32 per cent of those studying at Liverpool University achieving those marks.

The location of high-achieving students "varies much more by subject than by institution", says Anna Vignoles, professor of economics of education at London University's Institute of Education. "It's not just about the Ucas points you achieve - it's about subjects that you do well in. Private schools tend to choose the subjects favoured by universities, especially higher-ranking ones, which is why they get more children into the top universities."

'A-levels are getting easier'

Bemoaning the "prizes-for-all" culture of modern schooling, commentators say the ever-increasing A-level pass rate is undeniable proof that exams are getting easier. The pass rate last summer rose for the 28th consecutive year, with 97.6 per cent of entries gaining an E or above.

The proportion attaining higher grades has also risen. One in six students scored a hat-trick of As at A-level in 2009, according to exam board Cambridge Assessment - double the rate of 1996.

But does this mean exams are easier? Ms Curnock Cook says it is not that simple.

"The Government has invested billions of pounds in education, so you would expect more people to pass the exams," she says.

"And when teachers and schools get used to a syllabus over time, they will get better at teaching it. People are also not put in for A-levels unless they are going to pass them, which accounts for the high pass rate."

So does better teaching really account for such improvements? Sir Steve Smith believes the picture is mixed.

"It is undeniable that academics in science are doing more remedial catch-up work (with new students) than in the past," he says.

"There are also gaps in the knowledge of arts and humanities students. But there are, perhaps, better analysis skills. A lot of the work done by schools is much more useful than that done in my generation."

Why A* grades at A-level are not always the best guide to picking top students

Faced with complaints from elite universities that the growing number of A grades at A-level had made it harder to select the best applicants, the answer seemed simple: the A*.

The higher grade was introduced last year, with students achieving an A* in 8 per cent of exams. But several academics have suggested that the A* may promise a level of precision it cannot deliver.

Sir David Watson, professor of higher education and principal of Green Templeton College, Oxford, says: "If you are going to divide the A grade into A and A*, a single mark can make a huge difference to the fate of the candidate according to where it falls."

Dylan Wiliam, emeritus professor of educational assessment at the Institute of Education, also believes the grade is statistically more prone to errors. Fewer marks in exams will relate to an A* than they will to lower grades, he says, so any marking anomalies will have a bigger effect.

Official statistics from the Joint Council for Qualifications show that 30 per cent of all A* grades in 2010 came from private-school candidates, despite the fact that these students made up just 14 per cent of overall entries.

Meanwhile, The TES reported last September that exam boards had downgraded more than 10 per cent of A-level results that summer in order to avoid a glut of A*s, prompting further questions about fairness.

It's all in the preparation

Neil Hopkins, principal of Peter Symonds College in Winchester, says the well-worn stories about "falling standards" are the most frustrating for teachers. "When Roger Bannister ran the four-minute mile in the 1950s, it was a big achievement," he says. "Nowadays it's fairly commonplace, but people don't question whether the mile has become shorter.

"The improvement is down to better training and preparation, and it's the same for A-levels. My students work very hard and it annoys me to see their achievements denigrated."

But 18 August will still be "an amazing day", Hopkins adds. "It's always so emotional - the students are full of adrenaline, anxiety, hormones and excitement. It's the moment when they see the outcome of so much work.

"Pupils are often weeping, but mostly with relief or that they can't believe they have actually achieved the marks predicted for them. If we were able to bottle the emotional energy on that day, we would be able to power the National Grid."

A longer version of this piece appears in this week's Times Higher Education.

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