David Butler assesses the health of our subject area from key 2021 data.

Source: Joint Council for Qualifications Provisional Results, published August 2021 (all UK candidates).

Part 1: A and AS Entries and Results 2021

Headlines

  • Business and economics A level entries have both continued to rise and now jointly account for almost 9% of total entries, compared to just over 7% in 2017 (table 1).
  • Males make up almost 60% of entries in business, a very similar proportion to 2017 but a very slight fall from 2020. There are more than twice the number of entries for males than females in A level economics and males now make up almost 70% of the total, a slight increase from 2020 and reflective of the trend since 2017 (table 1).
  • The huge decline in AS entries in both business and economics has continued in line with the trend across all subjects. Entries in business have fallen by two-thirds since 2017. The decline has been even more dramatic in economics with entries in 2021 being around one-sixth of those in 2017. (table 2)
  • The proportion of candidates achieving A*, A and B grades has continued to rise in both business and economics more or less in line with the average increase across all subjects. (table 3)
  • The proportion of candidates achieving grade B and above was below the average for all subjects in business but above it in economics. The proportion achieving A* grades in business was substantially below the average but more or less in line with it in economics.
  • Females continue to achieve substantially higher grades than males in both business and economics and, although the gap has not widened since 2020, it is still markedly greater than the average for all subjects (table 4)

Table 1: A level entries 

Table 2: AS entries  

Commentary on entries (tables 1 and 2)

Entries in both A level business and economics continue to hold up well and have increased their total share of the market from around 7% in 2017 to almost 9% in 2021.  However, the relatively low proportion of entries in economics from females, highlighted in previous TBE articles, continues to be a major concern. Research commissioned by the Institute of Fiscal Studies (IFS) found that A level economics was a key gateway to students studying economics at university, even though it is not an entrance requirement. Almost 70% of students undertaking degree courses in economics had studied A level economics.  It is therefore not surprising that fewer females take degree courses in economics and make up a lower proportion of professional economists than males. The research did not delve deeper into the reasons why fewer females than males study A level economics.  (See article in TBE Spring 2021 for a discussion of the IFS research findings).  The Royal Economic Society (RES) is also concerned about the lack of females taking degree courses in economics, as well as a lack of representation of some ethnic groups.  Given that economics degrees offer some of the highest financial returns in terms of future earnings, women are losing out. This underrepresentation of women in economics at all levels is clearly worthy of further research and the EBEA is keen to pursue this with others with an interest in this issue.

While entries for economics and business show that the subjects are currently in good health, there are some major concerns about their future. The places for training teachers in these subjects, particularly in economics, appears to be at an all time low. Anecdotal evidence suggests that non-selective state schools in particular are finding it difficult to recruit properly qualified teachers in economics and are either switching to using non-specialists or dropping the subject all together.  The IFS research (op.cit.) found that already less than half of non-selective state schools with sixth forms offered A level economics, compared to 77% of independent schools and 83% of grammar schools. The shortage of trainees in economics seems highly likely to exacerbate the situation further in the future.

The continuing decline in AS entries in economics and business, in line with the national trend, must call into question their future viability. The failure of universities to give status to AS in terms of entry requirements and uncoupling them from A levels have sounded their death knell. They mark a long line of failures at attempts to broaden the post-16 academic curriculum. No doubt some politician in the not too distant future will come up with the bright idea of widening the post-16 curriculum to bring our system of qualifications more in line with those of competitor countries!

Table 3: A level results  (Cumulative percentages)

Table 4 : Results by Gender (Cumulative percentages) 

Commentary on A level results (tables 3 and 4)

It has been another extraordinary year for A level results with moderated teacher assessments again taking the place of external examinations.  Last year saw unprecedented grade inflation and this has continued this year. The proportion of students being awarded A* or A grades in business has more than doubled since 2019, the last year external examinations were used. The increase has been less dramatic in economics but there was still an almost 70% increase in A* and A grades between 2019 and 2021. The increase in the proportion of students being awarded A* and A grades was in line with the national increase in business but slightly below it in economics. Overall, grades in business are below the average for all subjects in business but above it in economics, which has long been the case. However, there has been a slight narrowing of the gap between results in business and those for all subjects since 2017.

Females continue to achieve better results than males in both business and economics, particularly in relation to the higher grades. Females also achieve better results at the higher grades in economics than the average for females across all subjects.  Despite this, the IFS research (op. cit.) found a lower ‘conversion rate’ for females than males in the take up of degree courses in economics.

It is hard to escape the conclusion that the use of teacher assessment has led to grade inflation in the last two years. Whether this matters or not is open to debate. However, some EBEA members have expressed concerns about the fairness of the awarding process, believing that standards have been applied more rigorously in some schools and colleges than others and they call into question the validity of the moderation process.

Part 2: GCSE entries and results

Headlines

  • There was a small increase from 2020 in the number of candidates taking business and its share of total entries rose from 1.7% to 1.8% between 2020 and 2021. There was a very slight fall in economics entries, from a low base. (table 1)
  • Both male and female entries in business increased in 2021. Female entries increased at a slightly higher rate than males but males still make up almost 60% of entries. (table 1)
  • There was a slight fall in entries from males in economics and a slight increase from females but males continue to make up almost 67% of entries. (table 1)
  • The proportion of candidates achieving a grade 7 (equivalent to the previous A grade) in business increased from 28.1% in 2020 to 33.6% in 2021. This was above the average for all subjects, which increased from 28.9% to 30.2%. (table 2)
  • In economics, 52.8% of candidates in 2021 achieved a grade 7 which was an increase from 2020 (46.8%) and well above the average for all subjects. (table 2)
  • The proportion of candidates achieving a grade 4 or above (equivalent to grade C) in 2021 remained broadly similar to 2020 in both business (80.8%) and economics (92.6%) but are well above the average for all subjects (71.1). (table 2)
  • Females achieved a substantially greater proportion of grade 7s than males in both business and economics and the gap in performance between females and males has widened slightly from 2020. (table 3)

Table 1: GCSE entries

 

Commentary on entries (table 1)

As with A level, entries in GCSE business continue to hold up well and have very slightly increased their share of the market. Male and female entries have both increased by just over 10% since 2017.  Concerns about the possible demise of business due to the pressure of performance tables and the focus on the EBbacc have not materialized so far. Whether this is due to candidates being switched from vocational courses to GCSE is not known as, at the time of writing, statistics on vocational entries were not yet available. Entries in GCSE economics make up only 0.1% of the total but they have steadily increased since 2017, although there was a slight decline in male entries between 2020 and 2021.

Table 2: GCSE results (Cumulative percentages)

 

Table 3: Results by gender (cumulative percentages)

Commentary on results (tables 2 and 3)

Results in both business and economics have continued to improve at a faster rate than the average for all subjects.  The proportions of candidates achieving grade 7 and grade 4 and above in both business and economics are also above average. This has only been the case in business in the last two years.  The proportion of candidates achieving grade 7 in business has doubled since 2017, with most of the increase occurring in the last two years.  As in A level, females achieve better results than males in both business and economics but males and females both attain above average results. The use of teacher assessment is the most likely explanation as to why results have improved so dramatically in the last two years, particularly in business.

Assessment in A level and GCSE business and economics in 2022

Ofqual published the findings of its consultation on the 2022 examinations at the end of September this year. The intention is to return to external examination with no element of teacher assessment. Ofqual intends implementing the proposals set out in the consultation in their entirety. These include the provision of support to students to try to offset the effects of the pandemic on education. In economics and business the support for both A level and GCSE will take the form of providing information in advance about the focus of the content of the examinations. Details are still being worked out but EBEA members who responded to the consultation were generally opposed to nominating topics in economics and business in advance and instead favoured giving students some directed choice of questions. It was felt that the integrated nature of both subjects makes it difficult to isolate particular topics and that one of the key skills to be tested is the ability of students to draw on their holistic knowledge in answering questions.  Whatever support is given to students still leaves one major question: will the results from the 2022 examinations be similar to those in 2021 or will they return to being more in line with those of 2019 and before?  So far, Ofqual has been silent on this crucial question, particularly when it comes to universities making offers. Of course, if universities allocated places after the results were published and students started degree courses later, many of the problems inherent in the current system might well be overcome, but that is perhaps a topic for future discussion!

David Butler
Advocacy Lead EBEA