A-Levels and the rush for university

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Record A-level results have again been reported this year, making it the 27th year in a row. However, the government-imposed cap on student numbers, means good results won’t guarantee a university place.

More than one in four exam entries (26.7%) were awarded an A grade - up from 25.9% last year. The overall pass rate (grades A-E) was 97.5%, an increase of 0.3% from last year. More than three-quarters of entries (75.1%) were awarded at least a C grade.

The results also show an increase of 0.8 percentage points achieving grade A. A total of 846,977 grades were published, a 2.3 per cent increase on the 827,737 published in 2008.

However, the record results will mean students will still find university places a scramble to get. There are there are 60,000 more applicants for university places in the UK than this time last year.

This surge in applications, fuelled by the recession, coupled with a Government cap on extra student numbers, means that there are expected to be just 22,000 places available in clearing this year.

It could mean up to seven applicants fighting for every available place.

Oxford and Cambridge saw record applications for the next academic year - around 15,000 people applied for the 3,000 on offer at each institution.

Wendy Piatt, director general of the Russell Group of research-intensive universities, said: “If university places continue to be rationed because of a lack of funding then this week’s scenes will be repeated in future years and many students capable of benefiting from higher education will miss out.”

There have been warnings that this year’s clearing process, the national system for allocating remaining university places, is likely to be concluded “within a week” because of the government-imposed cap on student numbers.

However, Schools Minister, Iain Wright, said the government had expanded university education. He said: "This September will see more young people than ever before starting higher education. This is a transformation in education participation and attainment which should be a cause for celebration not criticism."

"There are 10,000 additional places in addition to the massive investment in higher education that we've provided over the last decade. I would say to students, don't give up hope, there is options available there."

The A-level results show traditional subjects are still firm favourites for A-level students, with English and maths the top choices. There were an extra 7,882 entries for maths this year, and an extra 1,382 entries for further maths, compared to last year.

The numbers also show an increase in the number of entries for chemistry and physics, and there were an extra 7,882 entries for maths, and an extra 1,382 entries for further maths.

Susan Anderson, director of education and skills at the Confederation of British Industry (CBI), welcomed the increase, but said it was still a concern that 85 per cent of young people in England give up studying formal maths beyond GCSE.

She added: “Business applauds students and their teachers on their achievements. Employers value and understand A levels, and know they reflect real ability and hard work.

“We welcome the marked increase in the number of students taking maths A-level. However, there are still too few people who have taken maths beyond the age of 16 whether via A levels, university or vocational routes.

“Young people need to know that certain subjects – like maths and science – are highly prized by employers. Britain needs more people coming out of school, college and university with maths as part of their skills armoury.”

Lee Hopley, Head of Economic  Policy for  EEF, the Manufacturers’ Organisation, said: “Businesses will be encouraged that more young people are choosing STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering  and  Mathematics) subjects and achieving good grades – both vital to the UK’s future skill needs and beneficial to the employment prospects of the students taking them.
“However, the lack of full funding for additional places announced earlier in the year means that some courses a likely to face a funding squeeze. 
“Despite steps to increase in the number of university places, particularly in STEM subjects, the funding squeeze could mean that some applicants still miss out.  This will not send out the right signal to people considering their subject choices in future and could risk undoing some of the positive progress made in increasing participation in recent years.”

But critics of modern A-levels will see the high proportion of maths A-grades as evidence that standards are falling. Leading universities have complained that recent changes to the maths A-level, designed to make it more attractive to sixth-formers, have meant that an A grade at maths is no longer a guarantee that students will know enough maths to start scientific degrees without remedial teaching.

The A-level results have been released by the Joint Council for Qualifications (JCQ), the body which represents the exam boards.

Jim Sinclair, director of the Joint Council for Qualifications (JCQ), said: "These are excellent results. They are the outcome of hard work of students and teachers, who deserve to be congratulated. It is particularly good to report improved uptake and outcomes for mathematics and science."

In Northern Ireland, more than one in three entries (34.5%) was given an A grade - a fall on last year when 35.4% achieved the top grade - but still a higher proportion than in England and Wales.

In Wales, 25% of entries got the top grade. In England, the proportion was 26.5%.

The figures reveal that girls continue to outshine boys generally at A-level, but that the gap between them at the top grade is narrowing.

The percentage of entries from boys which were awarded an A is 25.6% this year, compared with 27.6% of entries from girls.

There was a fall in the number of candidates taking biology. Languages also saw a slump in popularity this year, as entries for both French and German fell. There were 552 fewer entries for A-level French, which saw an increase in candidates last year.

Commenting on the A-Level results, Christine Blower, General Secretary of the National Union of Teachers said: "These are wonderful results and a testament to the commitment of young people and the skills of teachers.

"For all those critics who can't bear the idea that the improvement in A-Level results is attributable to the hard work of young people and their teachers, they should have a look at the trend in improvement in the so called 'hard' subjects of Mathematics and Science. It is quite clear that irrespective of the subject, there is no difference in the quality of the examinations and there can be no question mark about the effort put in by young people.

"The potential drought in university places raises the question which this Government and any future government must address. Do governments want universities to be elite institutions catering for the minority, or will the Government's target of 50% of young people attending university be reached? A society whose values are based on education and a knowledge based economy must opt for the second and therefore the idea of cuts in access must be completely rejected."

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