Takeaway trends from the summer exam series

Takeaway trends from the summer exam series

Takeaway trends from the summer exam series

Over the last few months there has been plenty of analysis of the summer exam results. Paul Steer, Head of Policy at OCR, offers an overview of some of the most eye-catching trends using data for all boards across the UK, as published by the JCQ.

This article first appeared in this edition of our UK exam board OCR's Policy Briefing.

A Levels and AS 

AS entries were down 52% this summer

The good news for the A Level is that the numbers of entries remain very stable. Indeed, allowing for the fact that the population of 18-year-olds this summer was 3.5% smaller than in 2017, it looks like there has been a very slight rise in the popularity of A Levels. AS Level entries, however, are anything but stable. Since the AS was decoupled from the A Level, AS entries have taken a real pounding and the trend continues this summer with entries down a further 52%. If this trend continues, people will begin to question the long term viability of the AS.

Sciences and Religious Studies

The A Level in Religious Studies stands out as having had a particularly disappointing summer, with entries falling by 21% on the previous year. There will be a range of factors leading to this, but clearly young people are making different choices. Some must be turning to the sciences, which had yet another year of growth and is something to celebrate in the context of the Government’s Industrial Strategy, which makes STEM subjects such a priority. Another possible indicator of the changing preferences and aspirations of young people might be the modest rises in the popularity of Political Studies, Economics, Business Studies and Computing.


Over 80% of A level Computing candidates were male

On paper, Computing has had a bumper year with an impressive rise in uptake since 2017 of 23.9%. But before we herald a new dawn in the popularity of Computing, we should note that the rise is from a very low base. There were 10,286 candidates in total this summer, which is healthy, but isn’t up there with the top subjects. There were 59,708 Psychology entries this summer and the biggest of them all - A Level Maths - had 97,627 entries. A more concerning statistic is that over 80% of the candidates that took the Computing A Level were male.

Modern Foreign Languages

More students took Chinese A Level than German

Interest in A Level Modern Foreign Languages continues to wane, with French down 8%, German 17%, and Spanish a little less at 4%. Another sign of the times, however, is the growth of Chinese; for the first time there are more students taking Chinese A Level than German, albeit that the entries for both are very small.

Extended Project Qualification

If the EPQ was an A Level it would be the 8th most popular subject

In recent years we have seen the runaway success of the Extended Project Qualification (EPQ). Between 2016 and 2017, alone, the numbers of students taking the EPQ rose by 12.3%. With the continued decline in AS, it might have been expected that, this year, the numbers of EPQ candidates would have risen yet again, but that isn’t the case. In fact, uptake has plateaued with growth of just 1.1%. So it may be the case that the rise of the EPQ has reached its natural limits. Even if this is the case, it is striking that, if the EPQ were an A Level, it would now be the eighth most popular subject, tucked in behind Art and Design and pulling ahead of Physics and Geography.

The end of General Studies

The EPQ is often described as bringing breadth to an A Level programme, allowing students to develop skills in research and independent learning. There is nothing new about wanting to add breadth to A Level programmes. Back in 1959, General Studies was introduced to address these very concerns. And now, almost 60 years later, General Studies is no more, with this summer marking the very last entries in the UK.


Meanwhile, in the world of GCSEs, the headline story is the same as it has been for several years – entries for EBacc subjects are up and entries for non EBacc subjects are (mainly) down. Of the top ten most popular GCSE subjects, only 2 of them are non-EBacc subjects: Religious Studies and Art and Design.

Religious Studies and creative subjects

Although not as steep as the decline of this subject at A Level, GCSE Religious Studies is down 10% and has fallen from number 6 to number 7 in the chart of top ten most popular GCSEs. Art and Design, however, has shown modest growth, climbing one place to number 8 in the top ten. Art and Design has become the creative subject of choice at GCSE, and its good health is sometimes used to counter arguments that the EBacc is destroying creative subjects.

Performing Arts GCSE is down 44.7%

However, other creative subjects like Music, Performing Arts and Drama, which have always been very low uptake subjects at GCSE, continue to bump along the very bottom of the charts. The uptake of Performing Arts is down a striking 44.7%, joining for the first time those subjects that are taken by less than 2% of the candidate population. Music, which has consistently been taken by less than 1% of the candidate population for years, suffered a drop in entries this summer of 8%.

Design and Technology

Design and Technology fell out of the top 10 subjects

But perhaps the creative subject at GCSE generating the most concern is Design and Technology, which took a further drop of 23% this year, falling out of the top ten subjects for the first time in many years. Back in 2007 it was the fifth most popular GCSE subject of all. It’s easy to blame the EBacc for this but there will be many factors working together here against D&T, including funding in schools, historical perceptions of the subject amongst parents and senior management in centres, and changes to technology itself, but it is time that policy makers acknowledge this marked decline and declare whether they think it matters or not and, if it does, what is to be done about it. With Government investing millions in Technical Education for 16-19 year olds, it is time to be looking at what is happening at Key Stage 4 with both vocational qualifications and GCSEs.

Modern Foreign Languages

Less than 1% of the overall cohort is studying German

If proof were needed that the EBacc isn’t the only thing that drives GCSE subject choices, then languages are a case in point. Despite being EBacc subjects, Modern Foreign Languages are showing only the slightest signs of growth. German at GCSE is up 2% on entries for the previous year, which might suggest signs of recovery but in reality, even with this growth, less than 1% of the overall cohort is studying German. Nevertheless, the trend for Modern Foreign Languages at GCSE is better than at A Level and hopefully this will feed through.

Ebacc boost

The EBacc does seem to be continuing to boost other subjects with more people taking History, more taking Geography, a strong spike in the popularity of English Literature, and the continuing march of STEM subjects – and it is excellent to see these subjects thriving.

Finally, it’s important to remember that behind all these statistics are real young people, each with their own particular story to tell. All their achievements must be recognised and celebrated. We also need to recognise the growing number of achievements in vocational qualifications, for which data is less readily available. Maybe, too, we should give a special thought to the 732 pupils who achieved seven or more straight GCSE grade 9s. Given that the total cohort for GCSEs was 640,000 people, that’s some achievement.

Paul Steer

Head of Policy, OCR

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