The number of students getting into university this year may have reached a record high with the lifting of the cap on numbers, but the A-level results paint a picture of stability.
This comes as no surprise: the grading is determined in part by Ofqual's comparable outcomes approach. This means that if a cohort is broadly similar in terms of GCSE results to those who took A-levels last year (which they often will be), the A-level grade distribution should look similar unless an exam board can produce very convincing evidence that the standard has risen or fallen.
This stability is a very good thing, because grade inflation during the Blair/Brown years produced widespread cynicism and certainly devalued the A-level currency. It was one of the factors which drove independent schools to the International Baccalaureate and Pre-U. We have now had several years of stability – and even a slight decline in the proportion graded A*/A this year, which dipped to 25.9 per cent, down 0.1 per cent on last year. That is good for the qualification and good for the students.
The absence of January exams was expected to lower the standard slightly. This effect could be masked by the comparable outcomes approach to grading.
The numbers taking maths A-level continue to grow but the question is whether this will be reversed when the reformed A-level comes in and the AS is decoupled. A good number of those taking maths this year will have been helped along the way by their AS experience. It may well be that maths departments will be keen to make students continue to take the AS in a way that will be less true of, for example, English literature. Much will depend on what happens with the reformed maths GCSE, which kicks off next month.
The ongoing decline in the numbers taking French and German also comes as no surprise. Despite the increase in Spanish, overall the uptake of modern languages is dire. Shortage of funding for sixth-form colleges is driving them to cut small subjects and modern languages are gradually falling by the wayside at A-level. Nothing less than a national campaign can reverse the situation.
The decline in the number of boys taking chemistry, physics and biology is also a concern, as is the pitifully low number of girls taking physics in the first place. Again, a national campaign is needed to improve the position. The numbers taking facilitating subjects are up 0.8 per cent compared with last year and account for just over half of all entries, but the Department for Education will feel the number is still too low.
Computing numbers are up but incredibly only 8 per cent of entrants were girls. Action is needed.
Most marking is now done online by individual markers marking just one or two questions – so-called “item level” marking. Online marking also makes centralised checking of markers easier. So if schools are concerned about their grades the issue is as likely to be an administrative error as a poor marker. Exam watchdog Ofqual is getting tougher and looking more closely at the systems employed by the exam boards – much to the relief of schools.
Barnaby Lenon is chairman of the Independent Schools Council and former headmaster of Harrow