Over 160,000 students take A Levels in colleges every year and this summer’s results are the culmination of their commitment and hard work and that of the staff who support them.

The students who have just received their results will have a good grounding for further study or employment and most will be progressing to the higher education course of their choice.

Much of the media coverage this year has focused on fairly marginal annual shifts which are probably not very significant.

The headlines about ‘high grade numbers down’ or girls ‘overtaking’ boys in Science don’t really do justice to the big picture.

The number of 18-year-olds taking A Levels in England has fallen by 0.3% this year, but then the age cohort fell by around 3%, so a higher proportion of 18-year-olds took A Levels this year. AS entries in England have continued to fall as anticipated because they are no longer a necessary stepping stone to A Level.

The major reforms of A Level are now almost complete; nearly all subjects are reformed, with 19 more linear subjects this year, bringing the total to 44.

So what do this year’s A Level results tell us about standards and longer term trends?

The overall message is one of stability; not the stuff of headlines of course. Our sophisticated and complex system for setting, marking, moderating, refining grade boundaries and checking standards between years has once again delivered pretty consistent outcomes.

The indications are that standards have been maintained for all qualifications this year and that behind the ‘shock, horror’ stories about some low grade thresholds there is actually very little movement.

The exam boards are expected to set grade boundaries based on the demands of individual papers and they work hard to ensure that examiners mark to the agreed standards. If this year’s papers in a subject are more demanding, then grade boundaries will tend to be lower. If papers are more accessible, then grade boundaries will tend to be higher. By all accounts, the consistency of marking in England compares well internationally.

Ofqual’s role is to ensure that the results fairly reflect students’ performance and it shouldn’t be easier or harder to get a particular grade one year compared to the last, or with one exam board compared to another. Given that neither the candidates nor the exam papers are identical from one year to the next, this process inevitably involves some tweaking.

The principle of ‘comparable outcomes’ is that if the ability of the cohort of students is similar to previous years, they should achieve similar results. This means that, in general, students who would have got a grade A in one year would get a grade A in another year.

The tools available to achieve this include taking account of candidates’ prior achievements to predict what they might be expected to achieve, and the expert judgement of examiners themselves, particularly around the grade boundaries.

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This doesn’t amount to wholesale ‘norm referencing’ system with fixed proportions achieving each grade. If a cohort of students is better prepared and more successful overall, they will achieve a higher grade profile than their predecessors, safe in the knowledge that standards have been maintained.

So, is it a case of ‘move along, nothing to see here’?

I think the interesting story is actually about the longer term subject entry trends and what they tell us about the breadth of the general education we are offering our 16 to 19 year olds.

Sadly, the picture is one where the offer is getting narrower and some important subjects are very vulnerable.

While the continuing increase in science subject entries is positive, this is squeezing other subjects, including some with very low entries. The funding-driven shift in the average number of A Levels taken per student, with most students taking 3 rather than 4, affected some subjects more than others. But that has now stabilised. Nevertheless, some subjects continue to decline.

Worst affected are the performing arts subjects: drama (down 9% this year), music (down 6%) and dance (down 18%). Overall, entries for these 3 subjects are down by 45% over the last 10 years. Language entries are also a concern, these fell overall by 5% this year and by 20% over the last decade.

Although the overall number is still healthy, there has been a worrying fall in entries for the combined A Level English subjects (language, literature and lang. & lit) - down by 13% this year and 31% over 10 years.

All these subjects are of great value - both culturally and economically, but we know that as subjects become less viable, they are offered by fewer and fewer centres. The spiral of decline accelerates as many students who wish to study them find it even harder to access them and when the last specialist teacher for that subject goes, the college or school can no longer offer it.

I think we now need local collaborative approaches to safeguarding these important ‘minority’ subjects and to ensure that access to them does not become a postcode lottery. Because they are large providers serving wide catchment areas, colleges are well placed to play a big part in this.

The government needs to decide whether it values all A Level subjects enough to find ways to ensure that they are available to all students.

The challenge for publicly funded colleges and schools is to find new ways to collaborate to ensure that the most vulnerable subjects don’t disappear from our offer.

Eddie Playfair, Senior Policy Manager, Association of Colleges (AoC)

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