Record number of students head to university despite dip in top A-level passes


A record number of students are heading to university this year despite a narrow drop in the number of top A-level grades, official figures show.

Around 300,000 students from England, Wales and Northern Ireland collected their much anticipated A-level grades today, which will help to determine their next step in life.

The number of boys and girls awarded the coveted A* and A grades dipped to 25.9%, down 0.1% on last year, continuing a four-year trend, the Joint Council for Qualifications (JCQ) said.

But the overall pass rate has risen, returning to where it was in 2013 at 98.1% after falling last year for the first time in three decades.

University admissions service Ucas said 409,410 people have already been accepted on to higher education courses in the UK, up 3% - around an extra 13,000 students - compared to the same point last year.

Official figures also suggest that students have tried to increase their chances of gaining entry to top universities by taking more traditional subjects such as maths, sciences, modern languages and English literature, often favoured by top institutions.

The number of exams taken in these "facilitating" subjects rose by 0.8% compared with last year, accounting for 51.2% of all entries. The small increase comes mainly from a rise in people taking geography (up 4,188), history (up 3,717) and English literature (up 3,393).

Cherry Ridgway, curriculum and assessment specialist at the Association of School and College Leaders, said the increase in students taking facilitating subjects is down to a desire to get into top universities, a lack of subject choice for students because of funding pressure.

She said: "I think students are looking carefully at the subjects they need to get into university and schools are helping them with good careers advice to look at what qualifications they need to take the next step.

"Schools are getting better at that and students are getting better at that.

"But there is also this element of some subjects not being able to be offered by schools due to funding pressure post-16.

"Particular subjects that stand out this year are significant drops in music and German, which show a bit of a worrying trend and one we might expect to get worse going forward given the increase of funding pressures on schools."

Mathematics remains the most popular subject, accounting for 10.9% of all entries, followed by English (10.5%) and biology (7.4%), the Joint Council for Qualifications (JCQ) said.

Girls have again outperformed boys by 1% overall, but boys continued to earn more A* grades for the fourth year running, with 8.7% achieving a top mark compared with 7.8% of girls

The number of exams taken has also risen by 2% compared with last year, up to 850,749 despite a 1.1% fall in 18-year-olds sitting the tests.

Commenting on the rise in the number of exams taken, despite the number of entrants dropping, Andrew Hall from the AQA exam board said: "I think it is quite noticeable the impact of the increasing participation age.

"I don't think students are taking more A-levels, I think it is actually more people staying in education, taking A-levels."

Michael Turner, JCQ's director general, said: "The overriding message from this year's figures is one of stability. There have been no significant changes to the system, results are stable, and entries follow expected patterns.

"Students can be confident that they have received the results they deserve."

The results showed a significant increase in the number of students sitting computing exams, up 29.1% compared with last year.