Sixth-formers receiving A-level results

PA

(Update - adding pars 20 and 21, and comment from Department for Education at end)

Sixth-formers across the country are today waking up to their A-level results in the wake of major exam reforms, with around one in four entries expected to be awarded the highest grades.

Youngsters who are still seeking university places are likely to face a wealth of choice as institutions scramble to attract good candidates on to their degree courses.

University leaders suggested that there could be more people who are using Clearing this year to apply to university for the first time.

A Press Association snapshot survey suggests that the day before results were due to be released, more than 26,000 courses were available in clearing for students in England only.

More than half a million students in England, Wales and Northern Ireland are receiving A-level results today.

Last year, 26.3% of A-levels scored an A or A*, national figures showed.

The results are likely to be broadly similar again this year.

There have been major changes to A-levels in England, with a move away from coursework and modular exams throughout the course.

Last year the first grades were awarded in the first 13 subjects to be reformed in England and, among these subjects alone, the proportion of entries scoring at least an A grade fell by 0.7 percentage points to 24.3%.

A further 11 subjects have been reformed with the first grades awarded today.

Amanda Brown, deputy general secretary of the National Education Union, argued that A-level changes means that students are unable to fully demonstrate what they can do.

"Changing the assessment of A-levels so they focus on high-stakes exams taken at the end of two years of study does not allow students to properly demonstrate their ability and puts them under huge pressure," she said.

"Coursework and other non-exam assessments are a better way for students to demonstrate their skills, are less of a memory test, and help lower attaining students and those with special educational needs and disabilities show their achievements."

One expert has suggested that the proportion of top grades could drop slightly, by less than a percentage point, due to changes to the exam system, and a major hike in the number of unconditional offers handed out by universities.

Mitigating this are a number of factors, including processes put in place by England's exams regulator Ofqual to ensure that results are comparable and the first cohorts of students to take new courses are not disadvantaged, Professor Alan Smithers of the University of Buckingham said.

For those looking for degree places through Clearing this summer, there are suggestions that they are likely to find it is a buyers' market.

The Press Association's survey shows that, as of Wednesday, 26,350 undergraduate courses were showing up on the Ucas clearing website for students in England.

Nine in 10 UK institutions have at least one course listed in Clearing, the survey found.

It also shows that three quarters of Russell Group universities, often considered among the best in the country, have at least one course in Clearing, with almost 4,500 courses listed in total.

The numbers of courses listed change frequently as different courses are filled, or become available.

At the same point last year, the day before results day, there were around 27,715 undergraduate courses in total listed on Clearing with potential availability for students in England.

Professor Alex Neill, vice-president for education at the University of Southampton said that, nationally, there may be fewer people in Clearing this year for a variety of reasons, including a decline in the population of school leavers.

But he added that there could be more people in Clearing who have not applied to university through the main application scheme.

"As part of a further trend that's developed over the last few years, we do expect to see more students in Clearing who haven't previously applied to university so an increase in the number of people who are, in fact, using Clearing as their entry to university," he said.

"We have evidence that prospective students are receiving advice not to make a decision or application 'early', in the Ucas cycle, but use Clearing as a time when they will still be able to get entry to a high quality university and a high quality course, keeping their options open rather than pinning themselves down early."

Lindsay Neil, director of admissions at the University of Westminster, said: "Traditionally, prospective students apply to universities, receive offers and choose their first and second choice.

"They then have a long wait for their results to see if they have been successful or not.

"If unsuccessful students would then use Clearing as a back-up option to find universities who have courses with vacancies.

"Now however, the demographics are changing.

"The number of 18-year-olds applying for university is at a low point creating a 'buyers' market'.

"The majority of universities now open at least some courses in Clearing and this gives students a big advantage.

"They can now wait to see their results before applying to university, using Clearing as a first and faster application route.

"Often courses will reduce their entry requirements for Clearing, making it an attractive option.

"It is not 'risk free' however, as popular courses can still be full, but Clearing is becoming a method of choice, not necessity."

A Department for Education spokeswoman said: "We reformed A-levels after universities told us they were failing to prepare students for higher education.

"Reducing the number of exams students have to sit will give them more time for study and to gain a deeper understanding of the courses they are studying, an essential skill for undergraduate study.

"We know exam season can be a time of heightened emotions for pupils wanting to do their best but while testing has always been an important part of education, it should never be at the expense of a young person's wellbeing.

"That's why the Government is investing £1.7 billion to promote, protect and improve young people's mental health."

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