SKIDMORE CHRISChris Skidmore is Member of Parliament for Kingswood and a member of the Education Select Committee. Follow Chris on Twitter.

Over the last decade
A-level results day, full of thousands of individual moments of joy, relief,
and for some, frustration, had become rather formulaic for those watching from
afar. Each year results would improve, Ministers would warmly congratulate the
hard-working students and teachers whose smiling faces plastered the news, and
voices from the side would quietly suggest that some of this might be down to
grade inflation.

That all changed last year, when for the first time in over 20 years the
proportion of students achieving the top grades, A or A*, fell, dropping from
27 per cent to 26.6 per cent. The last time this happened was in 1991, when
just 11.9 per cent were awarded an A, down marginally on 12 per cent the year
before. This year, once again students are less likely to have got the top
grade, with the percentage falling another 0.3 per cent to 26.3; but, as with
last year, this isn’t a sign that students are relaxing. Standards are rightly
being raised, so that exams demand more from the very brightest pupils, while
the grade system is made more meaningful.

Yet while talk of the numbers getting top grades is likely to dominate
discussions in the news today one piece of good news which mustn’t be allowed
to go ignored is the increasing proportion of students who have been taking the
most academic subjects. From 2010 to 2013:

  • Biology entries rose 11 per
    cent from 57,854 to 63,839
  • Chemistry entries rose 18 per
    cent from 44,051 51,818
  • Physic entries rose 15 per
    cent from 30,976 to 35,569
  • Geography entries rose 3 per
    cent from 32,063 to 32,872
  • History entries rose 6 per
    cent from 49,222 to 52,149
  • Maths entries rose 14 per
    cent from 77,001 to 88,060
  • Further Maths entries rose 18
    per cent from 11,682 to 13,821

One of the most concerning recent trends in education has been the emergence of
a new social divide in subject choices. With most students studying just three
subjects to A-level the courses students select at 16 can have a lasting impact
on students, determining which universities and which subjects they can go on
to study if they move on to higher education.

Universities are becoming increasingly vocal about the subjects they value
most, and those that they consider softer options. The Russell Group of 24
leading universities published a booklet called Informed Choices, presenting a
list of ‘facilitating subjects’ including Maths, English Literature, the
sciences, Geography, History and foreign languages. These are the most
academically rigorous subjects, which will leave the most doors open for the
students studying them.

The problem has been that students at state schools have been far more likely
to be studying softer options than those being educated privately. I tabled a
number of Parliamentary Questions on the matter last year and found that
students at state schools were considerably more likely to be studying
Communication Studies, Dance, Film Studies, Media Studies or Performance
Studies. Of the 22,005 students taking Media Studies in 2011/12 just 474 were
from independent schools. Similarly, only 32 of the 1,881 studying
Communication Studies did so in the independent sector (Hansard, 30 October 2012).

Unfortunately it’s been the pupils from the most deprived background who have
been worst hit by this subject divide, with those eligible for Free School
Meals far less likely than others to be studying all the facilitating subjects
with the exception of ‘other foreign languages’, which excludes French, German
and Spanish. The differences are particularly worrying in Maths and English.
While 20.6 per cent of non-FSM pupils attempted English at A-level the
equivalent figure for FSM pupils was just 13.5 per cent. In Maths 16.3 per cent
of non-FSM pupils attempted it for A-level, compared to 10 per cent for FSM
pupils (Hansard, 9 November 2012).

The Department for Education have been clear from the very beginning of this
Government about their desire to put this right and get more students studying
the most rigorous qualifications. It’s excellent to see this has been paying
off with tens of thousands more pupils studying the most rigorous subjects.
Meanwhile fewer students are sitting exams in General Studies, Media Studies,
Performing Arts and Physical Education.

While the smiles we’ll see today won’t necessarily be a reflection of the
greater encouragement students have had to study the facilitating subjects we
can be happy in the knowledge that there are more students leaving with
qualifications in the most useful subjects. These pupils will be better
prepared for the world of work or university which awaits them, and one of the
greatest social injustices which has quietly existed in our education system is
that much closer to being swept away.