This article has been withdrawn
The share of A-level entries getting the top grade has fallen for the first time in two decades in results published on Thursday for more than 300,000 candidates.
Results show that 26.6% of grades issued this year are A or A*, a fall of 0.4% compared with last year. The overall pass rate at all grades has risen for the 30th successive year to 98%.
The race for places in Clearing has begun, with Ucas announcing that 357,915 students have been accepted on to university courses this year, as of midnight, down 6.95% on 2011. The sharp drop in acceptances to university may be partly due to a gap between predicted grades and outcomes this year.
For the first time since the A* was introduced in 2010, boys outperformed girls at the grade. Eight per cent of boys’ entries achieved an A*, compared with 7.9% of girls’ entries in results for 335,000 candidates in England, Northern Ireland and Wales. The A* grade requires marks over 90% in a candidate’s second-year exams.
Since 2009, the exams regulator, Ofqual, has adopted a new approach intended to contain grade inflation by comparing examiners’ marking of candidates against the performance of that year-group at GCSE, as well as previous years’ A-level results. The approach was introduced for the new AS-level specification first awarded in 2009, and the revised A-level first awarded in 2010.
In this year’s results, entries for maths increased 3.8% compared with last year. Maths entries have risen by 45.6% since 2007. Maths, the second most popular A-level subject after English, was taken by 85,714 candidates this year. Entries for biology, the third most popular subject, were up 1.7%. Physics and chemistry were also up on last year.
The take-up of foreign languages continued to decline. The number of grades awarded in French is down 5.2% on last year and German down 7.6%. The sharpest decreases in subject entries are for Critical Thinking, down 35.1%, and General Studies, down 13.24%.
Despite a drop in demand for university after the introduction of higher tuition fees, getting a place on a degree course remains intensely competitive. So far this year, there have been more than 629,000 applications for about half a million university places.
Mary Curnock Cook, Ucas chief executive, said: “Despite the fall in applications this year, entry to higher education remains competitive and we expect to see an active Clearing period. Over 25,000 courses are showing vacancies for UK applicants. More than 50,000 people found a course in Clearing last year.”
Under reforms introduced by the coalition, universities will be able to expand to take on as many UK students as they wish who achieve grades of AAB or higher at A-level. This change was intended to inject some competition into the university sector, modifying a system in which universities have a fixed quota of places for UK undergraduates each year.
The universities minister, David Willetts, has urged institutions to take advantage of the reforms and compete against each other for undergraduates.
However, this change may have a limited impact on the most selective universities, many of which recruit students with higher grades than AAB and have no plans to expand.
Oxford and Cambridge have ruled out expanding under the AAB reform. Among Russell Group universities, Bristol plans a significant expansion – admitting an additional 600 UK undergraduates this year – while UCL intends to add another 300.
Some universities have sought to attract high-performing students with scholarships, including the offer of a £1,000-a-year award at Coventry, and a £2,000 scholarship offered by Kent to any student who achieves 3As at A-level.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010