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A-levels: proportion of students in England getting C or above falls

Results in England drop after exam changes, but Wales and Northern Ireland do better
A-level results day 2018: drop in students scoring C or above after changes – as it happened
The proportion of students in England gaining C grades or above in A-levelsfell back this year, driven by a relatively weaker performance among girls, as schools and students continue to grapple with the introduction of new, more intensive exams.
The changes dragged down the overall UK pass rates, as the results in England contrasted with better performances in Wales and Northern Ireland. More than half a million students across the three nations were receiving their A-level results.
Last year, when fewer of the new, reformed exams were taken, 79% of girls in England achieved grades C or above but this year the proportion fell back to 78.4%, while the proportion of boys achieving the same results fell back by a smaller amount, down 0.3%.
However, at the highest grade, the gap between boys and girls in England receiving an A or A* narrowed from 0.7% to 0.4%.
In England boys continued to receive more A and A* grades than girls, as 26.4% of boys sitting exams across all subjects received an A grade or higher, compared with 26% of girls. But the gap shrank, as the number of boys awarded A* fell back from 8.9% to 8.5%, while the proportion of girls was almost unchanged at 7.6%.
Thursday’s results pave the way for university entry for hundreds of thousands of students, but the number accepted on to UK degree courses has fallen this year according to the Ucas admissions clearing house. So far 411,860 students are taking up places, one percentage point less than at the same time last year, according to Ucas.
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A Department for Education spokeswoman said: “We reformed A-levels after universities told us they were failing to prepare students for higher education.
“Reducing the number of exams students have to sit will give them more time for study and to gain a deeper understanding of the courses they are studying, an essential skill for undergraduate study.”
The situation was entirely different in Wales, where the exams were not subject to the same changes. For the second year in a row students in Wales enjoyed better than expected results, with the proportion awarded A*-C grades rising above 76%, the best results since 2009. The proportion awarded an A or above also shot up, from 25% to 26.3%, with strong performances among both boys and girls.
The changes in England have stripped out modular AS-levels which were examined after the first year of the course. The new A-levels have no coursework in most cases and instead rely on final exam marks to determine grades.
The number of candidates taking AS-levels continued to fall as a result of the reforms, which began under the former education secretary Michael Gove. This year there were more than 50% fewer entries for the one-year AS-levels in England, while numbers remained the same in Wales and Northern Ireland.
The figures showed that the numbers taking science and maths subjects continued to rise, so that more than a third of all entries were in the so-called Stem subjects. Maths remains the most popular single A-level subject, although it saw a dip in the number of students awarded A*, down two percentage points to 15.9%.
Modern languages continued their baleful downward trend, with nearly 8% fewer entries in French, German and Spanish.
The entries in languages showed a significant cultural shift as the numbers studying Mandarin shot up by nearly 9% to 3,334, overtaking German as the third most popular foreign language taken by UK students. The number of students sitting A-level German slumped by 16% to around 3,000, down 16%.
The number of students studying computing in the UK increased 23.9% on 2017, with 10,286 students taking the subject. Although males continue to dominate the subject, making up almost nine out of ten entrants, girls got higher marks. Overall 20.1% of girls achieved an A* or A in computing, compared with 17.9% of boys.
Meanwhile, university admissions offices across the UK were braced for a flood of inquiries and applications, after more than 600,000 candidates applied though the Ucas process this year.
Thanks to rapid expansion and a slight fall in the number of applicants overall, a significant number of courses still have places available. The Press Association reported that more than 26,000 places were on offer through clearing at universities in England alone, including members of the Russell Group of leading research universities.
“If you decide to look for courses in clearing, there are fewer 18-year-olds in the UK’s population, so there’s never been a better time to search for opportunities,” said Clare Marchant, the chief executive of Ucas.
This year’s application round has been beset by controversy over the increasing use of unconditional offers by universities, with more than one in five sixth-form applicants receiving an offer of a place regardless of their A-level results.
Some school leaders fear that unconditional offers cause pupils to have less motivation to reach their highest potential grades, and that they are more likely to underperform as a result.