Paul Steer, Head of Policy at OCR, looks at the trends emerging from this summer's exam results.
As always at this time of year, congratulations must go to all those students who studied so hard and got the results they deserved – once again we are reminded of the hard work and commitment that personifies so many of our young people – and the outstanding support they get from teachers, lecturers and trainers.
The trends revealed in exam results this summer haven't yielded many surprises, although the GCSE results showed an overall UK decline in A*-C grades of 2.1% to 66.9%. Whilst the increasing numbers of post-16 students re-taking English and maths GCSEs accounts for much of this decline (in general, post-16 students performed less well than 16 year old students), overall results for 16 year olds also saw a drop of 1.3%. The use of 'comparable outcomes' in recent years has pretty much abolished the old phenomenon of grade inflation but this slight drop in outcomes is probably best explained by a shift in subject choices driven by the EBacc policy and the ongoing impact of other policies which have reduced re-sit opportunities, introduced a linear approach, and significantly reduced the number of early entries.
Across GCSE and A Level we see a further increase in the popularity of science and maths subjects and a decline in arts-based and creative subjects. This seems in line with government priorities as signalled by the EBacc policy, though those opposed to the impact of the EBacc on creative subjects will have more ammunition to support their cause. Sadly, the EBacc has not brought about a much-needed increase in the study of Modern Foreign Languages at GCSE, except for a tiny improvement in Spanish – entries for Spanish were up 2.1% but there was a drop of 7% in German and 8.1% in French.
The data on achievements for those over 16 re-sitting maths and English presents, at best, a mixed picture. In a DfE press release, Nick Gibb rightly celebrated the fact that "51,200 maths exams sat by students aged 17 and over were graded A* to C - up from 30,000 in 2012. For English, the equivalent figures were 34,500 in 2016, up from 21,100 in 2012." That's 85,700 examples of improved maths and English results and there is plenty of evidence that possession of a good pass in these key subjects has a positive impact on future life chances. The downside, however, is the remaining 200,000 re-sits taken by 17 year olds this summer that didn't make the grade. This prompted the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) to say in its results day press release: "While some who are close to the C/D borderline may benefit, others do not, and a different approach is perhaps needed in which they are taught more practical applications. There is no point in setting up young people for a feeling of failure".
The decline in numbers taking AS was widely foreseen as a natural consequence of the arrival of the first wave of reformed, 'decoupled' A Levels, where the AS does not count towards the final A Level result. The decline can probably also be traced to the financial challenges facing many institutions, which make offering a choice of four A Level subjects in the first year increasingly difficult to afford.
The Extended Project Qualification (EPQ) seems to have benefited from the decline in AS with an increase in uptake of 6.1% on an already impressive base. It seems many schools and colleges are seeing the EPQ as a more manageable alternative to that fourth AS.
Core Maths, however, has not benefited from a decline in AS uptake. Core Maths is new and not long out of pilot, so it would be premature to label it a failure at this early stage. It can and should play an important role in ensuring that more young people continue to study maths post 16; the UK is often singled out for the unusually high numbers of people who are able to avoid the study of maths post 16. As reported in previous editions of the OCR Policy Briefing
, Professor Sir Adrian Smith has been asked to review the case for how to improve the study of maths from 16 to 18, including looking at the case for more or all students continuing to study maths to 18 in the longer-term. He will need to look carefully at the role of Core Maths in achieving this and whether the current GCSE resit policy is in need of retuning.
Vocational qualifications don't get the same 'results day' treatment from the media as A Levels, but it is important to celebrate the fact that a great many students will have achieved them this summer. Today at least one learner in four entering university does so with a vocational qualification and increasing numbers of students are enrolling on 'blended courses' that mix academic and vocational qualifications. It is a shame that this important route to university is so often overlooked by politicians and the media. By contrast, much media attention has focused on the new apprenticeship levy. The long-delayed detail of how this levy will work has been published as a 'survey' suggesting there is still scope for tinkering with the model. It is understandably complex, and the DfE is right to consult, but the levy is, in some ways, the easy bit - taking money from employers and giving it back to them in the form of vouchers that can only be spent on apprenticeships is surely manageable, if expensive. The critical bit is making sure there are quality apprenticeships in place that employers want to spend their vouchers on.
The current roll-out of new employer-designed apprentices has been slow and what has emerged so far from the 'Trailblazer'
programme has not inspired confidence. The 'end point assessments' which (you guessed it) are to be taken at the end of apprenticeships vary from sector to sector, but are often unwieldy and sometimes plain weird. Lord Sainsbury was concerned enough to ask that some of the brand new apprenticeship standards should be reviewed and those "found to be overlapping or wanting in terms of breadth or technical content should be revised, consolidated or withdrawn". And now, the Institute for Public Policy Research has warned us that we are "in danger of introducing an apprenticeship system that would work well in the economy of the 1960s, but is not fit for a 21st-century workforce". The fledgling Institute of Apprenticeships, which won’t be a fully functioning entity until April 2017 - and which has already lost its first Chief Executive - is going to have its work cut out.
Head of Policy, OCR