A-levels: Rising grades and changing subjects

Psychology is soaring but economics has declined. Girls get proportionately more top grades in physics, while boys lead in German and everyone's getting more As... a look at how A-levels have changed over recent decades.

A graphic looking at the percentage of A Level passes and fails since 1965

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Details of this year's A-Level attainment, by subject and by gender

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A-level entries and passes have both risen. A jump in passes in 2002 marks the launch of modular AS and A2 courses, which are assessed on coursework and examinations over two years, with less emphasis on the final exam. Some say they are dumbed down, but others argue that the increased pass rate is because the system helps identify weak students at AS level, who are more likely to pull out before taking the full A-level.

A graphic on the rise of grade A at A Level in various subjects

Until the mid 1980s, a standard proportion of students - roughly the top 9% - were awarded grade As each year. But after the grade was linked to specific levels of attainment, the proportion has risen steadily to 27% in 2010. The subjects shown have seen the largest increase since 2002.

A graphic plotting the popularity of A level subjects and the proportion of pupils getting an A grade

A greater proportion of students get As in some subjects traditionally thought academically demanding, than in subjects perceived as easier. Is that because only motivated, able students take courses like physics - or because film studies is harder than many people believe?

A graphic looking at which subjects are growing and declining in popularity at A Level

Non-traditional subjects like psychology have generally grown, while staples such as physics and economics declined. Recently, sciences have made a comeback and maths (not shown as data not comparable) entries are surging, but most languages continue to dwindle.

A graphic on the gender gap in terms of subject choice and attainment of an A grade at A Level

Girls have led the pass rates for well over a decade, and also get proportionately more A grades. The gender gap was at its widest in the wake of the switch to modular A-levels, but has narrowed slightly in the past few years.

Boys score proportionately more A (A and A*) grades than girls in just computing and language subjects, while girls lead even in some male-dominated subjects, such as economics, physics and PE.

It was suggested that boys might benefit from the A* reforms, which focus more on final exams, as girls are thought to peform better when assessed continually and through coursework. Girls still got proportionately more A*s overall - 8.3% to 7.9%. But at A*, boys extended their lead in further maths, chemistry, communication studies and English.

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