Exam results raise policy questions – but first let’s celebrate achievement

Exam results raise policy questions – but first let’s celebrate achievement

We all know coverage of exam results day is fairly formulaic. Pictures of teenagers jumping up in the air clutching pieces of paper, stories about twins with a string of A*s who are now off to Cambridge, and a parade of people trying to explain all the changes that have happened that year and how it is now all different to before.

Students receiving their A-level results on Thursday will be the first to do so in the latest wave of redesigned qualifications in England. The changes, which began during Michael Gove’s tenure at the Department for Education, mean a move away from modular qualifications and coursework towards linear assessment at the end of two years of study – largely through examinations.

This year, subjects such as geography, modern foreign languages and music join the likes of English, the sciences, and art and design in being assessed in this way. The new qualifications are designed to better meet the needs of universities and employers.

Despite the changes, many of the trends that we have seen in recent years persist. Girls continue to outperform boys in most subjects, the notable exceptions being mathematics and chemistry. There are large disparities in entry rates, around four-fifths of entries to physics are from boys, in English literature just one-fifth are.

The upward trend for entries into STEM subjects continues and now account for over a third of all entries. But modern foreign languages continue to slide with French down 8%, and German down 16%. The reforms to A-levels include the decoupling of the qualification from AS-levels. This means that, in England at least, the AS-level does not count towards the overall A-level qualification. This has inevitably led to a sharp decline in entries, with a fall of nearly 60% in the last year alone.

For many students, results day will be less about reflecting on what they have achieved and more about determining what happens next – whether they go to university, which university they will attend, and which course they will take. But for a growing number of students that uncertainty was removed long before they opened their results.

This year, Ucas reports that just over 42,000 18-year-olds have chosen their university and course based on an unconditional offer. In 2013, it was just 1,700. In fact, there has been an increase of 40% in the last year alone.

This inevitably raised concerns that without the incentive of meeting a university offer, some students may not strive for the highest grades possible. That may well have happened in some cases, but at a national level the proportion of entrants achieving an A* or A is largely unchanged, although there has been a slight dip in the very highest grade. It does however, raise questions about how our universities admissions system should operate.

But overall these are concerns for policymakers. For now, let’s recognise what students and teachers have achieved through the recent upheaval.

Jon Andrews is deputy head of research at the Education Policy Institute