David Butler provides his annual analysis of their health of our subject areas.

Headlines: Business and economics A level entries have continued to rise against a background of falling overall entries (table 1).

AS entries in business and economics have continued to fall at a slightly faster rate than the average for all subjects (table 4).

Males make up 59.3% of A level business entries and 68.9% of economics entries, which represents a very slight decrease from 2019 entries (table 1).

There has been a very substantial improvement in results at both A and AS levels, reflecting the average trend for all subjects (tables 2 and 5).

Females attained substantially higher grades than males in 2020 in both A level business and economics. The gap has widened considerably between 2019 and 2020 and is markedly greater than the average for all subjects (table 3).

Table 1: A level entries 

  Males Females Total % of Total

 Entries

Business        
2020

2019

2018

2017

21,479

20,557

19,633

17,977

14,709

13,368

13,234

12,046

36,188

33,925

32,867

30,023

4.6

4.2

4.0

3.6

Economics        
2020

2019

2018

2017

21,659

21,557

21,211

20,647

9,732

9.284

9,579

9,427

31,391

30,841

30,810

30,074

4.0

3.9

3.8

3.6

Commentary: Business and economics A level entries continue to rise despite falling total entries for A level. Combined entries for economics and business now account for 8.8% of all entries: only mathematics and psychology account for a greater share of the market.   Males now account for just over 59% of entries in business and almost 69% in economics, a very slight fall from the 2019 statistics but still virtually unchanged when compared with 2017 figures.

Table 2: A level Results  (Cumulative percentages)

  A* A B C D E
Business            
2020

2019

2018

2017

6.7

3.3

3.4

3.4

25.7

14.8

15.2

15.2

57.7

43.8

45.1

44.3

86.1

73.8

74.8

74.7

97.0

91.3

91.8

92..0

99.7

97.7

98.0

98.1

Economics            
2020

2019

2018

2017

13.6

6.7

7.3

7.2

41.2

27.8

30.3

31.0

70.2

57.7

59.7

60.4

90.7

80.7

81.9

83.2

97.9

93.6

93.9

94.6

99.8

98.3

98.3

98.5

All subjects            
2020

2019

2018

2017

14.4

7.8

8.0

8.3

38.6

25.5

26.4

26.3

66.1

51.6

53.0

53.1

87.9

75.8

75.1

78.7

97.0

91.0

90.2

92.6

99.7

97.6

97.1

98.1


Table 3: Results by Gender (Cumulative percentages.  2019 figures in brackets)

  A* A B C D E
Business 2020            
Males

 

5.6

(2.8)

23.3

(13.4)

55.4

(42.9)

85.1

(73.6)

96.9

(91.3)

99.7

(97.7)

Females 8.3

(4.0)

29.2

(16.8)

61.2

(45.3)

87.6

(74.2)

97.3

(91.2)

99.8

97.8)

Economics 2020            
Males  

12.3

(6.3)

 

38.7

(27.8)

67.8

(56.5)

89.7

(80.5)

97.6

(93.7)

99.8

(98.4)

Females  

16.4

(7.6)

 

46.9

(31.5)

75.5

(60.7)

93.0

(81.2)

98.7

(93.4)

99.9

(98.1)

All subjects            
Males  

14.3

(8.2)

 

36.7

(25.4)

 

62.9

(49.8)

 

85.6

(73.7)

96.2

(89.6)

99.7

(97.0)

Females  

14.5

(7.5)

 

40.0

(25.5)

68.7

(53.0)

89.8

(77.6)

97.6

(92.1)

99.8

(98.1)

Commentary: It has clearly been an extraordinary year for A level results with no examinations taking place and a last minute decision by government to use moderated teacher assessments, rather than the Ofqual algorithm. The outcome of this process has been an unprecedented improvement in grades across all subjects, including those for business and economics. However, the improvement in business was less dramatic than in economics. The proportion of entries awarded A*/A grades in business increased by just under 11%, below the national increase  (13.1%), whereas it was slightly above it in economics at 13.4%. These are seismic changes compared to previous years when they have normally been in the order of less than 1%. Females continue to achieve better results than males in both business and economics, particularly in terms of the higher grades. This gap has increased between 2019 and 2020 and is substantially wider than the average across all subjects.  Anecdotal evidence suggests that appeals and the October examinations are likely to only have a very marginal impact on final statistics.  (The above comments and tables are based on UK statistics but the England only figures show very similar trends.)

Table 4: AS entries  

  Males Females Total % of Total

 Entries

Business        
2020

2019

2018

2017

4337

5584

7061

12,806

3483

4292

5138

8968

7820

9876

12,199

21,774

5.0

5.1

3.5

3.0

Economics        
2020

2019

2018

2017

2542

3540

5103

11,270

1242

1726

2293

5099

3784

5266

7396

16,369

2.4

2.7

3.1

2.2

Commentary: AS entries in business and economics continue to show a significant decline and are in line with the national trend. The decline in entries started when AS was decoupled from A level and has continued since then. Males make up 55.4% of entries in business and 67.1% in economics, very similar to the corresponding statistics for 2019.

Table 5 AS Results (Cumulative percentages)

  A B C D E
Business          
2020

2019

2018

2017

20.2

11.6

11.7

10.6

48.1

31.7

30.8

29.8

75.9

58.1

54.5

53.0

91.4

77.6

75.6

74.3

98.3

90.1

88.9

88.1

Economics          
2020

2019

2018

2017

29.9

19.7

18.6

18.3

54.7

36.8

35.9

37.2

77.2

55.6

55.8

57.6

91.0

73.2

73.1

74.5

97.8

86.2

85.L0

86.5

All subjects          
2020

2019

2018

2017

30.9

21.5

27.5

23.8

56.5

41.4

47.0

43.5

79.6

61.9

66.3

(63.6)

91.9

78.1

81.2

79.4

98.0

88.8

90.7

89.6

Commentary: As with A level, there has been a dramatic improvement in business and economics results, which more or less reflect the national trend. However, unlike A level, the improvement has been similar in both business and economics and the gap in performance between the two subjects is also less than it is at A level.

Points for discussion and areas for further investigation

1. Why are A level entries for females substantially below those for males, particularly in economics?

The gap between male and female entries in A level economics and business has remained essentially unchanged since 2017. The TBE article based on the 2019 analysis of A level results drew attention to this discrepancy and it remains an important issue that certainly merits further investigation by schools, colleges, awarding bodies and educational researchers.  It is also an issue in degree course take up and one that the Royal Economic Society is investigating. A level economics is not an essential requirement for degree courses in economics but an increased take up by females at A level is still likely to have a knock on effect in terms of applications. Females taking A level economics achieve above the national average for all subjects and also do substantially better than males taking the subject. This may well be because they have higher than average prior attainment but we do not know this for certain.  Subjects such as psychology and sociology continue to attract large and increasing numbers of females (in 2020 there were 48,431 female entries in psychology and 30,236 in sociology). However, it is not clear why these subjects are more attractive to females than business and economics needs to be further explored. In order to investigate the gender imbalance, we first need to know more about the nature of students taking economics and business (for example, their ethnicity and prior attainment) and the types of institutions they attend (for example, the proportions from single sex grammar or independent schools) . Some of this data is available to individual awarding bodies but it is not shared publicly or nationally.

2. What are the implications of the use of teacher assessments to determine grades and the unprecedented rise in results?

It is perhaps ironic that in a year that students received less face to face teaching than ever before, they received the best ever examination results. What are the implications for future A level assessments? There has already been an indication from Ofqual that the relatively low numbers of students who have taken the autumn series of examinations will not be put at a disadvantage compared to those who were assessed in the summer. The government is determined to return to examinations in the summer of 2021, if at all possible, as it is seen as the fairest way of assessing students and of maintaining the integrity of qualifications. However,  in a letter from the Secretary of State for Education to the head of Ofqual he refers to ensuring that results take account of the disruption to students’ education caused by the pandemic and that they are comparable to those in recent years. We already know that A levels will start later in the summer term in order to allow more teaching time but we do not know how grades might be adjusted.  Will they take account of 2021 results, return to those which are similar to previous years or reach some sort of compromise position?

We do not know which students have benefitted most from the use of predominantly centre based assessments in 2020. It is often argued that males in general are more likely to be ‘last  gaspers’ in terms of examination preparation and the results in business and economics perhaps reflect this. Some schools and colleges were much better prepared to support students through on-line learning than others. There were concerns too that socially disadvantaged students might be further disadvantaged by the lack of direct teaching as they often had less access to computers and  lacked the  necessary facilities at home for effective studying,, such as a separate room. One  beneficial consequence of the pandemic might well be that schools and colleges in general have improved their on-line learning programmes and that these will continue to be of considerable value once we return to more normal times. It may well be that an unintended consequence of the current situation will be that some institutions will completely rethink their approach to teaching and learning and move away from an over reliance on what takes place in the classroom.

Higher grades mean that more students will have gained places at their first choice of university than if grades had been similar to previous years. Universities could not have anticipated this when they made offers. How will these students cope and how will universities adjust to teaching more students and from a wider range of abilities? Many are already having to continue to make much greater use of on-line learning and perhaps this might continue even when we return to more normal times. How will the students who might not have secured a place at some of the more prestigious universities in previous years fare? If the universities find no real difference in how students achieve, then it has important implications for how we assess students’ potential to cope with degree courses.  Are examinations the fairest and best way of allocating university places (as the government and Ofqual maintain) when a handful of marks can often determine outcomes or would at least some element of centre based assessment provide a better guide to real potential?

3. What is the future of AS?

The TBE article based on the 2019 analysis of results suggested that the falling numbers of entries for AS brought into question their long term future. The decline has continued and has been slightly more rapid in business and economics than the national trend. The qualification was doomed once it was decoupled from A level and when universities appeared to be taking little account of it when making offers to potential students. The catastrophic decline in AS entries and the possible demise of the qualification in the not too distant future is the most recent in a long list of failed attempts, stretching over 30 years or more, to broaden the range of subjects students take at A level. However, all may not be lost! In a recent interview, Dame Nancy Rothwell, the new chairwoman of the Russell Group and vice-chancellor of Manchester University, was quoted as saying, ‘doing more than three or four A levels is really challenging. If they were a bit lighter and pupils could take a broader range of subjects that would give a more balanced education’. How about doing four or five subjects at a level below A level in the first year  and then pursuing three of them in greater depth in year two? We could call these lower level qualifications AS levels and they would make up roughly half an A level.  Which, of course, is what we typically had a few years ago, proving that, once again in the history of qualifications, what goes round eventually comes round!

David Butler
EBEA Advocacy Lead     

Source: Joint Council for Qualifications Provisional Results, Sept 2020 (all UK candidates)