Opinion: 'A quiet A-level results day, then. Don't expect the same in years to come as mega-changes kick in'
A-level results this year are the calm before the storm. Little has changed. The proportion achieving A* is the same, other top grades are down slightly and the overall pass rate is up slightly. This is hardly surprising since there have been no structural changes and Ofqual pegs the results. The news story has shifted rapidly to university admissions.
Within the stable pattern there are, however, some interesting shifts. Boys’ performance continues to improve relative to girls at the top levels. They have increased their lead at A* and narrowed the gap at A*/A. But more also fail. This is consistent with a pattern common in psychological testing of boys coming more often at the extremes and girls being bunched together.
Girls were ahead by nearly 3 percentage points at grade A and above when A-levels became fully modular in 2002. But the lead has fallen back since then, with a pronounced drop last year when end-of-year exams became the rule. It may be that girls, typically, are more comfortable with assessment throughout a course. It will be interesting to see if the gender gap continues to narrow as the new linear A-levels come on stream.
The overall pattern and the gender gap are, of course, the summation of entries and performance in the individual subjects.
One of the striking trends in recent years has been the burgeoning of A-level maths. Take up has increased by over 75 per cent since the low of 52,788 in 2004 and maths is now the most frequently taken A-level, having displaced English last year. Following complaints about how difficult the maths exam had become in Curriculum 2000, a deliberate attempt was made to make it "more accessible". So it may have come to be seen as easier, but other possible factors are the strong foundation laid in primary schools and the finding that A-level maths increases earning potential.
A-level maths and further maths, which award lots of A* grades, are dominated by boys who enjoy a big lead over girls. This makes a major contribution to boys' overall lead at A* – bearing in mind that girls are ahead at this level in 25 of the 36 subject categories. The numbers sitting A-level physics have also been going up in recent years, although they are nowhere near their heyday in the 1980s. Recovery has stalled this year, and chemistry and biology have fallen back. The decline in A-level physics was clearly linked to schools moving away from the separate sciences at GCSE and its recent growth to their resumption. But there are signs that schools may be turning from them once more in response to the English Baccalaureate.
The problems of physics are nothing compared to those of French and German. A-level entries have declined in both by nearly two-thirds since 1995. On the other hand, Spanish, from a low base, has increased by 80 per cent. This makes sense since Spanish, along with English, is one of the four most-used languages in the world, but it probably has something to do with holidays. The other growth area is "other modern languages", a category that includes Polish, Urdu and Portuguese and could well take in a number of native speakers going for an easy hit.
So a quiet A-level story this year with some changes to the numbers sitting, but with grades much the same. Something to look back on as September approaches with the beginning of the mega-changes at both GCSE and A-level.
Professor Alan Smithers is director of the Centre for Education and Employment Research at the University of Buckingham