Ten things we know about the 2020 exams by Barnaby Lenon

1) Grades went up.

Normally I would comment on the grade distribution but there is little point this year.  Everyone did well because teacher predictions were used. Some pupils were even awarded grades higher than their school prediction.

2) AS-levels are fading out in England.

AS-levels still count towards the A-level in Northern Ireland and Wales so they are still popular there. But in England only 10% of those taking A-levels (718,000 this year) took AS-levels.

3) Subjects declining in popularity at A-level included French (8260 entries), German (2845), History (45,000), and Geography (30,000).

4) Subjects growing in popularity at A-level included Maths (94,000), Further Maths (15,000) and Spanish (8700). Psychology (65,000) is now the second most popular subject after maths.

5) Subjects declining in popularity at GCSE included German and Computing (the latter being a particularly bad development, Computing being a new course which had been growing).

6) Subjects growing in popularity at GCSE included Spanish.

7) Gender continued to play a huge part in A-level subject choice:

Male                 Female

Physics              29,000                  9000

Computing       11,000                  2000

Economics        22,000                10,000

Biology             23,000                 42,000

English Lit         9000                   32,000

Psychology       17,000                48,000

Sociology          9000                    30,000

French              2400                      5900

Art                   11,000                   31,000

Female entries in Biology, Chemistry, Physics are growing year by year and now exceed male entries which are declining year by year. This is despite the huge number of young women taking Psychology which must be distracting some of them from taking hard sciences.

8) The National Reference Test, taken by a large sample of pupils in March just before they were due to take GCSEs, showed an increase in performance in maths. The NRT is used to set GCSE grades, allowing some inflation if it finds that performance is rising.

9) Disadvantaged pupils.

There has been a great deal written this year about disadvantaged pupils when it was discovered that the dodgy Ofqual algorithm seemed to lower their grades below the teacher predictions more than other pupils. In the event the use of teacher predictions to set grades meant that disadvantaged pupils were slightly favoured – according to Ofqual their teacher predictions seemed particularly generous.

Using the DfE definition of “disadvantaged pupils” (eligible for Free School Meals at least once in the last 6 years) and not achieving grade 9-4 in both English and maths at GCSE as “doing badly”, then last year (2019) 60% of disadvantaged pupils did badly compared to 32% of non-disadvantaged pupils.

However, disadvantaged pupils made up only 39% of the group who “did badly”, i.e. 61% of the pupils who did not achieve 9-4 in both English and maths were not disadvantaged.  So although it is appropriate to focus on those whose family background makes it harder for them to succeed at school, if that is the only focus then the majority of weak pupils are missed.

10) UCAS

One of the results of grade inflation is that not all pupils with good A-level grades can be found places this year in the better universities to which they applied. They will be given places, but in some cases they will be forced to go in 2021. The universities minister said that universities should give priority to disadvantaged children for 2020 entry, compelling middle-class children to take a gap year.

By Barnaby Lenon

Dean of the School of Education, University of Buckingham

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