15 Aug '13

News A-level results 2013: fewer students get top grades for second year running

Some 26.3% of papers get A or A* grades, a 0.3 percentage point fall from 2012, but overall pass rate continues to rise

Fewer A-level candidates received the highest mark of A* and A in 2013, causing the proportion of the highest grades awarded to fall slightly for the second year in succession while the overall pass rate continues to rise.

Some 26.3% of A-level papers were given A or A* grades, a 0.3 percentage point fall from 2012, while the total number of A*-E grades rose by a sliver to 98.1%.

The dropoff in A and A* awards was mainly due to a lower-than-expected performance by female candidates. Although the proportion awarded fell for all candidates, the drop was larger among female candidates with an 0.5 percentage point fall compared with a 0.1 percentage point fall among male candidates.

The fall was particularly marked in geography, where the number of female candidates awarded A grades fell from 8.1% in 2012 to 7% in 2013.

Overall, the proportion of females candidates awarded A or A* was higher than males, with 26.7% awarded A and A* compared with 25.9% of males.

Last year the share of A-level entries receiving top A or A* grades fell for the first time in 20 years. In 2012, 26.6% of entries were awarded A or A* grades, a statistically insignificant fall of 0.4% compared with 2011, although the overall pass rate at all grades rose for the 30th successive year, to 98%.

Andrew Hall of the AQA exam board, asked about the grading this year, stressed that the overall results were similar to previous years. "The outcomes for A-levels are very, very stable," he said.

Meanwhile, there was a rise in popularity of more difficult subjects, with strong increases in the number of candidates sitting science and maths A-levels.

Biology, chemistry and physics accounted for nearly 18% of all A-levels, a rise of 23,000 entries compared with the same examinations four years ago.

Last year also marked the first time since the A* grade was introduced that boys slightly outperformed girls, albeit by the narrowest of margins. They repeated the performance this year in the A* grade.

Among the major subject categories, male candidates received fewer A* grades in English, while female candidates received notably fewer A* grades in economics, geography, physics and maths.

In maths, while 18% of male candidates received A* grades, a slight increase on 2012, only 14.8% of female candidates did so - a 1.8 percentage point fall compared with 2012.

Achieving an A* grade requires marks of above 90% in a candidate's second-year exam.

One bright spot came in the increasing numbers of students passing A-levels in mathematics and the more advanced further mathematics paper.

"The growth in the numbers of students taking A-level mathematics and further mathematics is a real success story. More young people are better equipped to study a wide range of mathematics-rich subjects at university because they have taken further mathematics," said David Youdan, executive director of the Institute of Mathematics.

Behind the headline figures and arguments about gold standards lay the personal drama of 300,000 individual students across England, Wales and Northern Ireland, for whom the weeks of waiting was finally over.

Chris Keates, general secretary of the NASUWT, the largest teachers' union in the UK, said the A-level results were the culmination of sustained hard work by young people and their teachers.

"It would be a real boost for them if just for once success and achievement could be the focus of any comment made by the government and its supporters," she said.

"Claims of grade inflation, dumbing down and easy options have all been political ruses to justify ideological change. They have no basis in evidence."

With the results distributed, attention now turns to the university clearing process, as university-bound students who performed above or below their expected results are matched with universities with course vacancies.

Last year some leading universities were left with unfilled places after a desperate scramble caused by new rules allowing unlimited recruitment of students gaining at least two A grades and a B. This year the bar on uncapped recruitment has been lowered to include students earning an A and two B grades, meaning a larger number of students able to seek offers from more competitive courses.

As a result, this year more than half of the 24 members of the Russell Group of leading research universities have said they will enter clearing, including Durham, Leeds and Glasgow.

Paul Clark, the director of policy at Universities UK, said that despite annual predictions of chaos, university admissions departments will cope remarkably well with the clearing rush.

"As will be the case for hundreds of thousands of applicants, if they get the grades asked for in their offer, they will get their place. For students who miss out narrowly, there may still be opportunities to find a course that suits them via clearing. Last year, over 50,000 accepted places via this route," Clark said.

To make the process worthwhile, the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills today published research estimating that the net lifetime benefit – after tax and loan repayment – of a degree is £168,000 for men and £252,000 for women on average.

But for too many, today will see little cause for celebration.

"With all the focus on results day, it sometimes easy to forget that the majority of young people don't get two A-levels and that almost half don't achieve level three qualification at all," said Dom Anderson, vice president of the National Union of Students.

In a week's time the process will be repeated for GCSE candidates. Ofqual, the education standards regulator, has already warned that this year's GCSE grades are likely to be lower than previous years because of a number of special factors, including some schools adopting separate "international GCSEs" in preference to the domestic version.

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