Students taking A-Levels and AS-Levels this summer have received their results this morning, and national figures have just been published. What do they show?

A-Level grades

Across all subjects, the proportion of A-Level entries in England awarded a C or above has decreased to 75.5% this year versus 76.8% last year. This is its lowest level since at least 2015, as the chart below shows.

A note on coverage

Unless otherwise stated, figures in this post relate to England only – though results for Wales and Northern Ireland are also available on our results microsite.

The proportion of entries awarded A or A* grades is also at the lowest level in recent years, at 25.2% – down from 26.2% last year.

Given that exam regulators follow an approach that benchmarks each year’s results against the previous year’s, what could explain this?

Firstly, Ofqual, the exam regulator for England, can instruct exam boards to lower the overall mix of grades awarded where the cohort of pupils sitting A-Levels is of lower underlying ability. There has been a slow but steady increase in post-16 participation, and it will generally be students with lower prior attainment who are newly taking A-Levels, so this might be a contributory factor.

It might also be explained by pupils switching to subjects in which fewer pupils get top grades. There are some subjects in which, historically, fewer top grades are awarded (even taking into account students’ prior attainment). This is true of the sciences – at the grade C boundary at least – in which there have been increasing numbers of entries.

Finally, if senior examiners think the quality of exam scripts is lower than in previous years, awarding bodies lower the mix of grades awarded. Could the rise in unconditional university offers mean that (some) students are placing less importance on achieving good grades in their A-Levels?

A-Level entry rates

Overall, the number of A-Level entries in England decreased by 1.2% this year.

We know that the 18-year-old population fell by around 3% from last year, but we don’t yet know something that’d be more useful to know – how many 18-year-olds entered at least one A-level. The numbers of students entering one or more A-Level has been increasing (albeit slightly) in recent years.

We can be reasonably confident that the number of pupils starting four A-Levels (or completing four A-Levels[1]) has fallen – but this is likely to have been balanced out by more of the 18-year-old population taking A-Level courses.

Explore changes in entry numbers and grades in your subject

You can explore trends in entries and grades in any subject using our results microsite – visit the site now to explore trends in your subject.

STEM subjects and languages

The trend in entry numbers of course differs by subject.

There was a notable decrease in entries into maths A-Level – the most popular subject – this summer. Entries dipped from 90,189 to 84,965 this year in England, a drop of 5.8%. A little more than the decrease in the size of the 18-year-old population.[2]

This follows warnings from the Mathematical Association, among other, that the ‘big, fat’ maths GCSE – which this year’s cohort of A-Level students would have been the first to sit – would lead to a drop in entries. Whether a two-year maths course is also seen by students as too difficult or high risk given the effective loss of AS-Levels also needs to be considered.

Other STEM subjects recorded increases in entries, though. As the charts below show, entries were up in each of biology, chemistry, physics and computing.

Some of the modern foreign languages also fared better than they have in recent years. Entries in French were down by 267 (3.4%). Entries were stable in German and up slightly in Spanish, though, changing by 5 (0.2%) and 341 (4.5%) respectively.

We also need to talk about the group of subjects that fall under the other modern languages heading – this includes Italian, Russian and Chinese, among others.

As the chart above shows, there have actually been more entries in this basket of languages than in any one of French, German or Spanish since 2016. But something’s changed this year – entries in this grouping of other modern languages have fallen sharply, as the chart above shows. There were more entries in Spanish this year.

If we dig down into this basket of languages, we see that there has been a roughly 29% drop in those that were reformed in 2019 (Chinese, Italian, Russian) but a 5% increase in those that are yet to be reformed. (These figures are for the UK as a whole. We don’t have a separate figure for England). Have the new qualifications put students off, or is something else at play? Answers on a postcard (in the comments section below), please.

As for other subjects, we can’t cover everything here, but do visit our dedicated results microsite where you can explore national trends in grades and entries in each subject.

AS-Level entry rates

Finally, a brief mention of AS-Levels. As we wrote on Monday, AS-Level entries have now dropped to very small numbers – 114,088 this year; a more than tenfold decrease from the 1.25m plus in 2015, before the A-Level and AS-Level reforms had taken effect.

We’ll be back with more detailed analysis of this year’s results shortly, but do take a look now at this year’s results data on our microsite, which allows you to explore trends in A-Level and AS-Level entries and attainment in every subject.

And sign up to our mailing list to be notified about the rest of the analysis that we’ll be publishing today.

  1. Only around 17,000 18-year-olds in England entered four A-Levels in 2018.
  2. One thing to say here: maths numbers are affected to some extent by a change in approach. Up to 2018, some students ‘cashed in’ their maths A-Level twice – once in Year 12 and once in Year 13. This was the case for students taking further maths who completed maths A-Level in Year 12 but then recertified the qualification in Year 13 to optimise the use of their maths/further maths modules.

This had the effect of inflating figures for maths in previous years – which technically cover qualification awards rather than entries. Under the reformed maths and further maths A-Levels this is no longer the case.

But a drop in maths numbers of a similar magnitude – 5.2% – was also present in provisional data on entries published earlier this year by Ofqual. So we can be quite confident that the apparent drop isn’t just a result of this change in counting.

Thanks to those who talked us through this yesterday.