British sixth formers have achieved some of the best A-level results seen for several years, despite the introduction of tougher exams in England that depressed grades in several popular subjects, including the sciences.
Driven partly by improved performances among boys nationally, the proportion of students awarded the top A* and A grades rose for the first time since 2011. Overall, the share of papers gaining A or higher passed the 26% mark, up by half a percentage point since 2016.
But the improvement was tempered by a more downbeat performance in the 13 subjects – such as English, science and history – taken by pupils in England that have been overhauled in changes that date back to Michael Gove’s time as education secretary.
The national figures showed boys outperforming girls in the share of top grades for the first time since the last major A-level reforms in 2002. This year, 26.6% of exam entries for boys across the UK gained As and A*s, compared with 26.1% for girls. Last year, 25.7% of boys were awarded A and A*s, 0.3 points below girls.
In England, boys coped better in the changed A-level subjects when it came to the top grades. In those subjects, the results for girls declined significantly compared with previous years, although girls still gained a slightly higher share of A* grades.
Uncertainty over their prospective results appeared to have caused some students to hold off committing to a chosen university. Ucas, the course applications clearing house, reported a slower than normal start to the annual acceptance process.
The changes in England – which led to claims that this year’s A-levels would be among the toughest ever – stripped out modular AS-levels that had been examined after the first year of the course. The new A-levels had less coursework and instead relied on final exam marks.
In several subjects, the new content was regarded by teachers as tougher, with subjects such as chemistry and physics having a heavier emphasis on maths.
Geoff Barton, the general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said the changes in exam structure meant pupils now had less guidance in how they were performing.
“It’s the fact that you haven’t got a staging post at the end of year 12 or – as you had a few years ago – modules at the end of each term,” Barton said.
Among the 13 reformed subjects, the proportion of candidates gaining A* and A grades fell compared with last year’s results – dropping to 24.3% – while the proportion of top grades in the non-reformed subjects rose.
Among the reformed subjects, there were falls in the number of A* and As awarded in physics, chemistry and biology. In some cases, such as history, boys increased their share of top grades while those of girls fell. In English, the proportion of students achieving C grades or better fell by almost three percentage points.
Mark Bedlow, a director of the OCR examination board, suggested that the removal of AS-level exams meant students were less likely to be “filtered out” by schools if they were struggling in particular subjects.
“The changes and the results we’re seeing in the reformed subjects year on year are not abnormal and can really be ascribed to changes in students’ abilities based on their prior year attainment,” Bedlow said.
Students in Wales celebrated better than expected results, with the proportion awarded A*-C grades rising above 75% for the first time since since 2009.
The annual process of clearing and adjustment – where students accept offers for undergraduate study from universities or seek new courses – got off to a slow start, with Ucas reporting a 2% fall in the number of acceptances by Thursday morning.
The clearing house said 416,310 applicants of all types had been accepted into higher education through Ucas, including 26,090 EU students, a fall of 3% compared with 2016.
But the number of UK school-leavers accepting places was 201,270, the highest number recorded on A-level results day, offset by a fall in applications from mature and part-time students.
Clare Marchant, Ucas’s chief executive, said the picture was complicated. “We are seeing a growing proportion of 18-year-olds going into higher education, and a greater numbers of students from our most deprived communities are securing places. At the same time, we are seeing fewer older students taking places, and a fall in numbers from the EU,” Marchant said.
The Office for Fair Access pointed to new figures showing that the number of students from disadvantaged backgrounds gaining places had risen again this year.
“These students have overcome barriers that many others do not face, and I applaud their effort and dedication. They will find that higher education is a rewarding and life-changing experience, as it was for me,” said Les Ebdon, the head of Offa.
“Unfortunately, some young people have picked up exam results today that do not reflect their full potential, because they have been held back by socio-economic or educational disadvantage.”
Among those going to university will be Malala Yousafzai, who survived an assassination attempt by the Taliban in Afghanistan in 2012 and subsequently won the Nobel peace prize for her work encouraging girls into education.
After taking her A-levels at Edgbaston high school for girls in Birmingham, Yousafzai will study for a degree in philosophy, politics and economics at Oxford University from September.
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