Source: Joint Council for Qualifications

A level entries

  Males Females Total % of total entries
Business 19,633

(17,977)

13,234

(12,046)

32,867

(30,023)

4.0

(3.6)

Economics 21,211

(20,647)

9,579

(9,427)

30,810

(30,074)

3.8

(3.6)

Commentary: Entries for both business and economics continue to rise, both in terms of absolute numbers and their share of total entries in all subjects. Entries for males and females both rose but males now make up nearly 60% of total entries in business and almost 70% of entries in economics. If entries for business and economics are combined they make up nearly 8% of total entries, constituting the third largest subject entry after biology and mathematics.

A level results (Cumulative percentages)

  A* A B C D E
Business 3.4

(3.4)

15.2

(15.2)

45.1

(44.3)

74.8

(74.7)

91.8

(92.0)

98.0

(98.1)

Economics 7.3

(7.2)

30.3

(31.0)

59.7

(60.4)

81.9

(83.2)

93.9

(94.6)

98.3

(98.5)

All subjects 8.0

(8.31)

26.4

(26.3)

53.0

(53.1)

75.1

(78.7)

90.2

(92.6)

97.1

(98.1)

Commentary: Results in business and economics were very similar to those of 2017, as were those across all subjects. This is not surprising given that Ofqual moderates results to ensure there are no significant differences from year to year and to compensate for changes, such as the introduction of the ‘reformed A levels’, so that candidates are not unfairly disadvantaged. However, it raises questions about whether the new ‘reformed’ A levels are any more demanding than their predecessors, as they were intended to be. In both business and economics, females attained marginally more A*/A grades than males, while across all subjects, the reverse was true. For both males and females, attainment is substantially better in economics than business, particularly in terms of the higher grades, with over 30% of candidates achieving A*/A grades in economics, compared to just over 15% in business. The proportion of candidates attaining A*-B grades in business was significantly below that for all subjects, whereas it was substantially above in economics. Anecdotal evidence suggests that economics tends to attract students with higher prior attainment than those opting for business.

AS entries

  Males Females Total % of total entries
Business 7061

(12,806)

5138

(8968)

12,199

(21,774)

3.5

(3.0)

Economics 5103

(11,270)

2293

(5099)

7396

(16,369)

3.1

(2.2)

Commentary: AS entries in business and economics continue to show a dramatic decline, reflecting the overall trend across all subjects. This is likely to be due to the decoupling of AS from A level , the seeming lack of importance being attached to them by universities when making provisional offers and pressures on school and college budgets. Anecdotal evidence also suggests that some economics and business teachers and lecturers see co-teaching AS and A level as an unnecessary complication which may lead to lower A level grades. There is firm evidence too of an increasing number of schools and colleges making an executive decision to cease offering any AS courses. Males constitute almost 58% of candidates in business and almost 69% in economics, a similar pattern to A level.

It is worth remembering that AS courses were originally designated as stand alone qualifications and were introduced to broaden what was seen by universities and employers as a very narrow post-16 curriculum when compared to most other OECD countries. It was only later that AS results were coupled to A level, counting for half the qualification. Many schools and colleges encouraged students to start with four AS courses and drop down to three A levels after a year, although more recently there was a trend away from this pattern. AS courses were intentionally assessed at a lower level than A levels as they were taken after one year, although they could also be re-taken. Not surprisingly, A level results improved considerably as a direct consequence of this. However, as has already been shown, A level results have remained much the same, despite the decoupling of AS and the introduction of new ‘reformed A levels’ intended to be more demanding and rigorous. Clearly, schools and colleges are producing better taught and consequently higher attaining students!

Given the declining entries for AS it is questionable whether all awarding bodies will find it economic to continue offering the full range of AS courses. If this is the case, co-teaching of AS and A level will become even more difficult as schools and colleges will need to switch to different awarding bodies for some subjects, leading to a probable further decline in entries. It is not inconceivable that the qualification will be abandoned completely in the foreseeable future if entries continue to decline at their current rate. So we might well be back to where we were 40 or more years ago: students mainly taking a narrow course comprising three A levels which are assessed almost entirely by examinations at the end of two years!

AS results (Cumulative percentages)

  A B C D E
Business 11.7

(10.6)

30.8

(29.8)

54.5

(53.0)

75.6

(74.3)

88.9

(88.1)

Economics 18.6

(18.3)

35.9

(37.2)

55.8

(57.6)

73.1

(74.5)

85.L0

(86.5)

All subjects 27.5

(23.8)

47.0

(43.5)

66.3

(63.6)

81.2

(79.4)

90.7

(89.6)

Commentary: There has been a slight improvement in attainment in business from 2017 but results are still well below the average for all subjects. Economics results are better than those for business but are still below the average for all subjects. There has been a very slight increase in the proportion of students gaining A grades in economics but this is offset by a marginal decline in results across the other grades. As with A level, females performed better than males in both business and economics, which is the reverse of the average for all subjects. The increase in the proportion of students attaining grades A-C across all subjects (around 3%) is not reflected in business (where the increase was 1.5%) or in economics (which saw a decline of nearly 2%). However, the prior attainment of students taking AS business and economics in 2018 and how it compared to 2017 is unknown, so it is impossible to draw any firm conclusions about students’ achievement, rather than attainment.

GCSE entries 

  Males Females Total % total

entries

Business

Studies

54,089

(54,716)

37,559

(38, 026

91,648

(92,742)

1.7

(1.7)

Economics 3778

(3871)

1766

(1766)

5544

(5637)

0.1

(0.1)

Commentary: The impact of the Progress 8 and EBacc measures in the performance tables has not been as severe on entries in business studies as many first thought. Between 2016 and 2018 entries declined by just over 3%. The rate of decline appears to be slowing down and the share of total entries has remained the same at 1.7%  (by way of comparison, geography and history, both included in Progress 8 and EBacc measures, each represent around 4.7% of entries).  The growth in popularity of economics, albeit from a much smaller base than business studies, appears to be waning and there has been a decline in entries of around 7% since 2016, although there has been only a 1.6% decline between 2017 and 2018 and its share of total entries over that period has remained unchanged.  Males account for 59% of entries in business and 68% in economics, very similar to the gender split shown at A level.

GCSE results (Cumulative percentages)

  A/7 C/4 G/1
Business

Studies

17.6

(17.0)

64.5

(63.2)

98.1

(98.2)

Economics 30.5

(29.3)

79.5

(79.2)

98.8

(98.8)

All subjects 20.5

(20.0)

66.9

(66.4)

98.3

(98.4)

Commentary: Business and economics will not move to a 1-9 grading scale until 2019, so comparisons with other subjects (most of which are already graded on the 1-9 scale) need to be treated with caution. Students taking business studies perform below the average for all subjects, while those taking economics perform above. The evidence suggests that it is mainly higher attaining students who take economics at this level. There has been a slight improvement in results in both business studies and economics between 2017 and 2018, in line with the average across all subjects. Females perform better than males in both business and economics. The gap in performance between males and females in business studies is in line with that for the average of all subjects at grades A-C but it is much narrower in economics.

Some concluding thoughts

Gender imbalance

Why are business and economics courses at both GCSE and A level increasingly attracting more males than females, even though females tend to perform better than males in these courses?  It was not so long ago that the reverse was true in business. The explanation at A level seems to lie at least in part with the huge rise in candidates taking subjects such as psychology and sociology, which have traditionally attracted many more females than males. But why should these subjects be more attractive to females than business and economics? The reasons are complex but are perhaps found in the image portrayed by the media of these subjects and the careers related to them. It is a similar picture at GCSE where subjects such as art and design, food preparation and nutrition and health and social care, which have traditionally attracted more females than males, have been growing in popularity. It would be interesting to find examples of business and economics departments that have investigated the gender imbalance and whether they have found any ways of successfully tackling it. Alternatively, it would be worth investigating departments where there are similar numbers of males and females taking business and/or economics courses to try and ascertain the reasons why they do not conform to the norm.

Grade drift

Over the last 20 years (and perhaps even longer) there has been an upward drift in grades at both A level and GCSE in business and economics, reflecting the pattern for the average for all subjects. Why has this occurred? It would be nice to think that it is because students are better taught than they were two decades ago and consequently have a better understanding of business and economics. However, such evidence as there is from Ofsted (which has been admittedly rather sparse for economics and business in recent years ) suggests there have been only marginal improvements in teaching over a lengthy time period. Might it also be that students are better prepared for examinations than ever before? Teachers certainly have more information about the examinations and what examiners are looking for than they ever had in the past. Extra classes and Easter holiday revision sessions have become the norm in many schools.  The stakes are also much higher now: school and college league table positions, Ofsted grades, headteachers and principals salaries, teachers’ appraisals and promotion prospects are all to a greater or lesser extent linked to examination performance. The upward drift in grades means that students need to achieve higher GCSE grades to access post-16 courses and higher grades to get into the more prestigious universities.  All this means relentless pressure on teachers and students to raise GCSE and A level examination performance year on year.

Does this upward drift in grades necessarily equate to students having better subject knowledge. understanding and skills? Perhaps, but it is at least open to debate. Universities do not seem to think so (although rather strangely the proportion of students awarded first class and 2.1 degrees has also risen considerably over the past 20 years!).  Of course, the nature of the examinations has also changed, making comparisons over time difficult, if not impossible.

As has already been alluded to, awarding bodies and Ofqual  moderate  grade boundaries to ensure there are not wide fluctuations up or down year to year.  This is something the general public (and often the media) is not always fully aware of. The tendency has been to allow some marginal improvement in most years, leading eventually to more substantial improvement over time. There is no evidence of direct political interference but, of course, improving examination results are generally seen as a ‘good thing’ by governments and they are likely to do little to discourage the upward drift in grades. However, the reform of A levels and GCSEs present Oqual and the awarding bodies with somewhat of a dilemma. They are meant to be more rigorous and demanding and one would hypothesise that, all else being equal, grades would go down, at least in the short term. However, the reverse has been true, although in truth improvements have often been very marginal. So are the new A levels and GCSEs being assessed more leniently or have grade boundaries been adjusted to ensure similar proportions of students end up with more or less the same grades as last year? Or perhaps the examinations in reality are not any more rigorous or demanding than they were previously? Answers on a postcard, or preferably by email!

David Butler
Chair of Advocacy