Today, young people across the country received their A-Level results. We have done some initial analysis of what those results tell us about the trends in entry rates, grades, offers to Higher Education Institutions and the demographics of students.
The Government has made a series of reforms to A-Levels and AS-Levels to make them more challenging for students. Students began studying the new courses in some subjects from September 2015 and further subjects will be rolled out over the next two years. The new content is designed to be more rigorous than before.
The exam process is also changing. Students will now be tested at the end of A-Level courses, rather than taking modular exams throughout the two years. There is also a wider variety of questions being asked in exams. Coursework will only be examined if it is deemed essential to the subject.
Another important change is that AS-Levels will no longer count towards a final A-Level grade (should a pupil choose to continue that subject for a further year). AS-Levels will however still count in the UCAS points tariff, but only for 40 per cent of an A-Level rather than 50 per cent in recent years. This means that both schools and students continue to face difficult decisions over whether to offer and take AS-Levels. On one hand, they provide a useful benchmark to assess progress at the end of year 12 and help to decide whether to continue to take the full A-Level (and as discussed, AS-Levels still count in UCAS points, albeit less than before). On the other hand, entering into exams that won’t count towards a full and final A-Level grade could be seen as an inefficient use of time for both school and student.
Those students studying the new content at A-Level will not complete their courses until next summer, however the AS level results out today will reflect the decoupling of AS and A levels.
There has been a small fall in the total number of entries. In 2016 the total number of entries was 837,000, down 1.7 per cent on the equivalent figure for 2015. The fall was slightly larger for males than females (2.1 per cent vs 1.3 per cent). This is likely however to reflect shifting demographics. Data for GCSE outcomes in England shows that there was a 2 per cent fall in the cohort between 2013 and 2014 and it is these students who have just taken A-levels.
In percentage terms, the subject with the biggest increase in entry was Computing – this is up by 16 per cent since last year. However, the number of students taking this course is relatively low (just over 6,000). Amongst more popular courses Economics and Sociology also saw large increases (6.6 and 5.3 per cent respectively.)
Amongst the subjects with the largest declines in entry this year compared to last are General Studies (by 35.0 per cent), Music (by 8.8 per cent), Drama (by 6.5 per cent) and French (by 6.5 per cent). The latter will be seen as a disappointment for the Government, who are looking to increase the uptake of language study from key stage 4 through seeking to make the English Baccalaureate compulsory for most students in future.
Facilitating subjects continue to be amongst the most popular subjects at A level with mathematics, English and Biology seeing the highest entries. However, alongside the fall in French, the number of entries to English also fell (by 5.4 per cent)
As discussed above, the changes to AS-Level rules and contribution to UCAS points could act as a disincentive for students to take these qualifications. The entry data published today finds large falls in AS level subjects including Art and Design (down 33.4 per cent), General Studies (down 29.9 per cent) and History (down 24.0 per cent). Mathematics now makes up 13.6 per cent of all entries at AS level.
Longstanding gender differences in some subject areas persist. Females make up the large majority of entries to Sociology, Psychology, Art & Design and English whereas males make up the majority of entries in Computing, Physics, Further Mathematics and Economics.
Across the UK the proportion of entries achieving the highest grades (A* or A) was largely unchanged (25.8 per cent in 2016, 25.9 per cent in 2015). Overall, females continue to marginally outperform men with 26.0 per cent of entries at A*/A compared with 25.7 per cent for males.
The English region with the largest percentage of entrants scoring A*/A is the South East (at 29.0 per cent). This is followed by London (27.4 per cent). The worst performing region on this measure is the North East, where only 22.1 per cent of entries achieved A*/A though this represents an increase on last year (+0.3 percentage points).
Yorkshire and the Humber made the largest improvement (in terms of proportion of entries achieving an A*/A grade) between 2015 and 2016, with a change of +0.7 percentage points. The South West saw the biggest fall in the proportion of students achieving an A grade, down by 0.8 percentage points compared to last year.
Data from UCAS shows that as of today, 424,000 students have been accepted by universities. This is a 3 per cent increase on last year. 2 per cent more 18 year olds have been placed despite the population falling by a similar amount – young people are 4 per cent more likely to have been placed in higher education than in 2015. This change has particularly benefitted disadvantaged young people, with those from the least advantaged backgrounds 7 per cent more likely to be accepted than last year though overall they are still far less likely to attend university than more advantaged groups. There has also been a slight narrowing of the gender gap, with 3 per cent more men being compared to 2 per cent more women.
Without pupil-level data it is impossible to say how far these trends have been influenced by changes in the A level results themselves. However, given the headlines above it is likely that most of this increase is due to policies of expanding higher education, with 2016 the second year of entry following the removal of student number caps announced in 2013. It is likely that a wider range of qualifications and grades are being accepted by universities on entry, and research published by the Social Market Foundation research has shown increases in the number of students accepted with vocational qualifications in recent years.
This expansion isn’t just affecting domestic students: the most noticeable trend in the UCAS data is an 11 per cent (26,800) rise in EU students accepted, showing continued recovery in numbers following the reduction brought by the increases in tuition fees, and potentially an effect of young people anticipating an EU referendum outcome which may in future affect opportunities to study in the UK.
Joint Council for Qualifications: A-Levels 2016 http://www.jcq.org.uk/examination-results/a-levels/2016
UCAS: Daily Clearing Analysis https://www.ucas.com/corporate/data-and-analysis/ucas-undergraduate-releases/daily-clearing-analysis-2016
 DfE (2016) Revised GCSE and Equivalent Results in England https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/revised-gcse-and-equivalent-results-in-england-2014-to-2015
 Facilitating subjects are those that give access to the widest range of courses at Russell Group universities. They include Mathematics, Further Mathematics, English Literature, Biology, Chemistry, Physics, History, Geography and Modern and Classical Languages.
 UCAS (2016) ‘Results day update – 18 August 2016’: https://www.ucas.com/corporate/news-and-key-documents/news/results-day-update-%E2%80%93-18-august-2016
 Social Market Foundation (2016) ‘Passports to Progress (Part2): How do vocational qualifications help young people in building their careers?’: http://www.smf.co.uk/publications/passports-to-progress-part-2-how-do-vocational-qualifications-help-young-people-in-building-their-careers/