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Overall, this week’s A-level results were a success for the Government’s reform programme, going off largely without a hitch. There are some trends that might raise concern and potentially represent a spectre at the feast, such as the lack of proper technical and vocational post-18 opportunities.
There are no dramatic shifts in outcomes or trends, which suggests that between them the exams regulator Ofqual and the examination boards have maintained a consistent standard with previous years, despite the increased rigour of the new qualifications. That does not mean there are not interesting features about the results that ought to be noted.
In the thirteen subjects that have been fully reformed, the percentage of entrants achieving A*- C fell from last year about one percentage point to 77.1 per cent. At the top end, the A*- A percentage fell to 24.3 per cent from 25.0 per cent. It has been suggested that this will not provide sufficient differentiation at the top-end amongst candidates for places at the most selective universities. Although the fact that these reformed A-levels saw a slight fall in top grades compared to a slight growth in those outcomes for the others might suggest this will become clearer in time.
There is genuine concern over the declining take-up of certain subjects. Modern foreign languages seems to be having a hard time capturing teenagers: there was a 1.2 per cent drop in entries in French A-level and a 4.2 per cent drop in German compared to last year. These subjects were not amongst the thirteen fully reformed qualifications, and nor were drama (which fell 4 per cent) or music (9.4 per cent fall), which suggests other factors may be at play. Much fuss has been made by schools that budget cuts are requiring them to eliminate their creative arts provision and are finding it hard to staff languages departments, and this may provide some corroboration for that. However, work Policy Exchange is currently doing suggests that schools are cutting such provision when they could make other efficiency savings, such as reducing large, unwieldy and expensive management teams.
Beyond the A-levels, there is a wider policy agenda which needs considering. Whilst improving the route to university is important, both for individual young people and for wider hopes of increased social mobility, there will be many students this week who are going to university but may not wish to. Currently they lack feasible alternatives. In recent years, much work has been done on degree apprenticeships, which must continue and expand, and government has recent proposed T-levels to provide better routes into technical and vocational education.
As we approach departure from the European Union, Britain must do more work to fill the skills gaps that have plagued us for too long. We should be pleased that the change to the new A-levels has gone off without the enormous problems that attended the last big change to the qualification under New Labour, when first the exam regulator, Sir William Stubbs, and later the Secretary of State, Estelle Morris, lost their jobs in the escalating scandal. We should recognise that technical and vocational education remains a weak link in our system, as it has been since the British state first began to fund and organise elementary education. Attention now needs to turn to ensuring vocational qualifications and further education routes in this area are as strong as academic routes currently available.
John Blake is Head of Education and Social Reform at the think-tank Policy Exchange, before which he was a state-school history teacher for ten years.