The 17th–24th August was a momentous week in the lives of many 16–18 year olds, educators and politicians, all waiting nervously for exam results.
Always a newsworthy event, this year it was made more so by huge changes to grading systems and syllabus over the previous twelve months. Not only was there a new ‘linear’ A-level with students taking exams at the end of a two-year programme, but also revised numerical grading in GCSE English and Maths. This saw students’ work graded 9–1 rather than A*–G, with an A equivalent to a 7, and C to a 4.
While the proportion of A* grades in ‘unreformed’ A-levels rose, the number of students gaining A*–E grades in the new A-levels fell. Top grades also dropped. Some say this is due to a slightly weaker cohort sitting the exams, we shall see if this is true in the future.
A-level results bucked previous trends with boys achieving more top grades than girls for the first time in almost a decade. This was a somewhat surprising reversal of the tendency of girls to outperform boys, begun when modular qualifications were introduced.
To some extent, previous patterns held true elsewhere. In creative subjects like Art and Drama, girls are still ahead of boys. However, as Michael Turner, head of JCQ has said: “it is too early to draw any firm conclusions,” about whether these changes in the new A-levels are due to the greater focus on exams rather than coursework.
With GCSEs, the picture is also complicated by grading changes, though nationally there is the suggestion that ‘tougher’ exams have led to reductions in pass rates in many subjects. In England, the English Literature pass rate fell 2.2 percentage points to 72.4%, while in Maths it dropped from 71.4% to 70.7%. Both subjects that saw the introduction of new, tougher exams.
Some say these falls are down to poorly planned curriculum reform. Certainly, many parents, schools, admissions tutors and, most of all, students have complained about the new grading system being confusing.
However, in English Literature, English Language and Maths, the new grade 9 has enabled a greater distinction between the most able. In English Language 2.2% of candidates were awarded a 9, and 3.5% in Maths, with some 2,000 students receiving 9s.
Overall, the number of students getting A*–C or 9–4 grades fell by about half a percentage point, while the proportion of those reaching the highest grades was at a ten-year low. There was also a slight decline in C and 4 grades.
The picture is similar in other subjects, though this could in part be due to changes in entry patterns, such as more post-16s re-sitting.
Until the new numerical grading system has had time to bed in, there are calls for the government to refrain from making early judgements. We shall see. But no doubt, as further educational changes occur, the next few years will prove very interesting.