Education & Family

A-levels 2012: Top grades down this year

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Media captionMixed emotions as students in England and Wales find out their results and plan for rising tuition fees

There has been a fall in the proportion of A-levels awarded an A or A* grade for the first time in over two decades.

This summer's results show 26.6% of A-level entries achieved the top two grades - down from 27% last year.

About 335,000 students in England, Wales and Northern Ireland have been receiving their results - with many finding out whether they have made the grade for university.

Students in England will be the first intake to face fees of up to £9,000.

Although girls have continued to outperform boys for getting A grades - this year saw boys narrowly ahead of girls at achieving the highest A* grades - 8% compared with 7.9%.

Within the UK, the biggest drop in the top A* and A grades was in Northern Ireland - down from 34.5% to 31.9%.

Making the grade

The figures published by the Joint Council for Qualifications also show that the overall pass rate has risen again for the 30th successive year.

The results also revealed a continuing fall in the numbers of pupils taking modern languages - with French, Spanish and German in decline - by 5.2%, 3.4% and 7.6% respectively.

"There is a crisis here in modern foreign languages," said Andrew Hall, chief executive of exam board AQA.

But there has been an increase in the numbers taking maths and science subjects - with Schools Minister Nick Gibb welcoming that the "number of students pursuing rigorous subjects such as maths and physics continues to rise".

Numbers taking maths rose 3.3%, while there was a 5% rise for physics.

Labour's education spokesman, Stephen Twigg, said: "These impressive results are thanks to better teaching, better school leadership and Labour's relentless focus on literacy and numeracy and record investment in schools."

The exam boards have also published the first indications of how the results of independent schools compare with other state schools and further education colleges.

This showed that 50% of entries in independent schools achieved A* or A grade, while 23% achieved these top grades in state schools and colleges.

Many students have also been learning whether or not they have gained a university place.

Admissions service Ucas says 362,000 students have now been accepted for university courses this year, down 8% compared with this stage last year.

Figures published on Thursday evening also show that about 94,000 applicants are still awaiting decisions.

Despite a dip in applications this year, Universities Minister David Willetts said the long-term expansion in university numbers would continue.

"There is a long-term trend for more and more people to aspire to go to university and for more and more employers to look to employ people with higher education qualifications and I personally don't think, taking the long view, that trend has suddenly stopped," said Mr Willetts.

Room at the top

As well as rising tuition fees, this year also sees changes aimed at increasing competition for students between England's universities.

Universities can take an unlimited number of students with top grades (AAB or higher) - although not all universities plan to use this flexibility.

The results in numbers

Pass rate is 98%
and has risen for 30 years

A* grade, boys just beat girls

But on the A grade...
Boys score
Girls score

Change in take up since 2011
  • Maths 3.3%
  • French 5.2%
  • Physics 5.0%
  • German 7.6%

There have been scholarships of up to £2,000 offered by universities to recruit such AAB students - and applications are still being invited.

But some of those expanding for AAB students are limiting these places to existing applicants.

Brian Lightman, head of the Association of School and College Leaders, has linked the lower level of acceptances this year to this change - suggesting that it might be pupils who have just missed out on gaining these AAB grades.

The slight fall in A-level top grades will add to the debate about so-called "grade inflation".

This year's results show a small fall in the proportion of top grades awarded in England and Wales - but a larger fall in Northern Ireland.

This has been attributed to a wider group of pupils staying in school and taking A-levels in Northern Ireland.

Northern Ireland still had the highest proportion of A* and A grades - 31.9%. England's top grades dipped by 0.3% to 26.5%, Wales also fell by 0.3% to 23.6%.

Grade inflation

Since 2010, England's exams watchdog Ofqual has been telling exam boards they have to account fully for any upward movement in grades - to show there was real improvement in performance.

Teachers' leaders, exam bodies and others maintain that grades have improved over the years because students are better taught and are working harder, but critics dispute that.

At a news conference on Thursday, exam board heads insisted that this had not led to the slight fall in top grades awarded.

They said the change was probably related to a different make-up of students this year: while the number of 18-year-olds is down on last year, more of them did A-levels, so the ability-range is wider, they argue.

Ziggy Liaquat, managing director of the Edexcel board, said the fall was "marginal", adding "the standard needed to reach an A grade has not changed".

The results are for A and AS-level exams taken by pupils in England, Wales and Northern Ireland.

Pupils in Scotland got the results of their Highers and Standard Grades earlier this month and there was a record pass rate for Highers.

While many teenagers will head out to work or other training, more than half of UK A-level students will opt to go on to university.

The rise in tuition fees for many has been followed by a fall in university applications - particularly for England - but competition for places is still expected to be fierce.

Mr Willetts said he hoped the changes had not deterred students.

Students applying to England's universities will be liable for fees up to a maximum of £9,000 a year.

The Welsh Government will meet the extra cost for its students wherever they study in the UK and students from Scotland will continue to pay no fees at Scottish universities.

Students in Northern Ireland who stay there to study will not face an increase in fees.

Universities in Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland are all charging higher fees to students from other parts of the UK.

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