Provisional A Level results 2013/14: Entries and attainment in facilitating subjects

The Department for Education (DfE) has recently published a statistical first release (SFR), revealing the overall achievements for level 3 students aged 16-18 at the end of advanced level study in 2013/14. [1]

Of particular note is the decline in the percentage of A* or A grades, which has dropped from 27.2% in 2010/11, to 26.5% this year. In the SFR, it is suggested that a possible cause for this decline is the increase in the number of students opting for more ‘traditional subjects’ (often considered to be more challenging), potentially due to the A Level facilitating subjects measures, which were introduced in 2012.

The A Level facilitating subjects measures were introduced in order for schools to account for the percentage of students achieving three A Levels at grades AAB or above in a ‘facilitating subject’. The list of subjects was compiled by the Russell Group of universities which sought to define the A Level subjects most commonly required by universities and is of particular use to students hoping to keep their options open if they have not yet decided on a particular career path. The facilitating subjects comprise: Biology, Chemistry, Physics, Mathematics, Further Mathematics, Geography, History, English Literature and Classical/Modern Languages. [2]

At Learning Plus UK Data, we have examined this SFR with a focus on:

  • the number and percentage of entries for facilitating subjects in England;
  • the number and percentage of A*-A grades achieved for facilitating subjects in England;
  • regional differences (state-funded sector only).

The uptake of facilitating subjects accounted for over 50% of all summer 2014 A Level entries in England. This was consistent regionally, with the exception of the North West, where a slightly lower percentage (49.4%) opted for facilitating subjects. Across England, the greatest percentage of entries were for Mathematics (10.7%), followed by English (10.5%), Biological Sciences (7.5%), Chemistry (6.4%), History (6.2%), Physics (4.3%), Geography (4%), Further Mathematics (1.8%), French (1.2%), Other modern languages (1%), Spanish (0.9%) and German (0.5%).

By filtering by subject, it is possible to see from our Big Numbers that the percentage of entries for each subject varies widely across regions. However, there are several points worth noting.

Firstly, the North East has the greatest percentage of entries in England for English (14.7%) and the second greatest percentage of entries for History (6.7%) and Geography (4.5%) suggesting a stronger leaning towards Humanities. However, the North East had the lowest percentage of entries for Other modern languages (0.4%) and is also in the bottom three regions for German (0.4%) and Spanish (0.6%).

In London, there seems to be a greater emphasis on STEM subjects, with the greatest percentage of entries for Mathematics (12.3%), Chemistry (7.1%) and the second greatest for Further Mathematics (1.7%). Yet Humanities subjects seem less popular in London, with percentage of entries in the lower half for History (6.1%), second lowest for English (9.9%) and lowest overall for Geography (3.0%).

In other regions, there appears to be a more even spread of subject choices. In the South West, for example, they had the greatest percentage of entries in subjects from each of the three key subject groups: STEM – Physics (4.5%), Humanities – Geography (5.1%) and Modern Foreign Languages – French (1.2%).

A*-A grade passes

Across England, 36.4% of grades achieved for facilitating subjects were A*-A. The greatest percentage of top grades were achieved in Further Mathematics (57.5%), then Other modern languages (52.4%), Mathematics (43%), German (40%), French (38.9%), Spanish (36.6%), Chemistry (33.4%), Physics (33%), Geography (28.4%), Biological Sciences (28%), History (25.6%) and English (19.8%).

As our Big Numbers show, regionally, the South East achieved the greatest or second greatest percentage of A*-A grades in 7 out of the twelve subjects. A particular strength seemed to be the STEM subjects, with 27.6% A*-A in Biological Sciences, 29.2% in Physics, 33.6% in Chemistry, 41.2% in Mathematics, and 56.4% in Further Mathematics. Humanities subjects also proved successful with 19.5% A*-A in English and 26.7% in Geography.

The South West also did well, with top percentages of A*-A grades in English (20.1%), Biological Sciences (26.6%), Physics (28.6%), Chemistry (32.6%), Spanish (35.5%) and German (37.1%).

A further high achieving region was the East of England with a high percentage of entries achieving A*-A grades in Geography (26.1%), History (23.7%), Spanish (34.5%), French (35.4%), Mathematics (41%) and Further Mathematics (56.5%).

Less successful was the North East, gaining the lowest or second lowest percentage of A*-A grades in 8 of the twelve subjects: English (14.6%), Geography (19.5%), Biological Sciences (20.4%), Physics (23.6%), Chemistry (25.6%), Spanish (20.9%), Mathematics (35.5%) and Further Mathematics (46.4%). The East Midlands also tended towards the lower end of percentages of A*-A grades achieved, with just 17.1% in History, 20.4% in Geography, 22.4% in Biological Sciences, 25% in Physics, 48.9% in Further Mathematics, 29.1% in French, 28.8% in German and 41.5% in Other modern languages.

At the beginning of this blog, the increase in entries for facilitating subjects was put forward as a potential reason for the overall decline in A*-A grades. However, the data do not appear to support this suggestion. As can be seen in the line chart in our Big Numbers infographic, the percentages of students achieving A*-A grades in 11 out of the 12 facilitating subjects (English being the exception) lie higher than the ‘All A Level subjects’ totals.

So if the increased uptake of facilitating subjects is not the cause of this decline, then what is? Could the regional divisions be a factor? Why are certain subject groups more popular in different areas of the country?

If the decline in A*-A grades is in fact triggered by the growth of facilitating subject entries, then should we be concerned?

We would like to know what your views are on this subject. Take a look at our interactive infographic and Join us on Twitter @learningplusuk, on our Post-16 Learning Forum or LinkedIn group to let us know what you think!

[1] DfE, SFR42 - A level and other level 3 results: 2013 to 2014 (provisional)

Available from:

[2] The ‘Classical/Modern Languages’ category includes 24 different languages. However the SFR only provides data for French, German, Spanish and ‘Other modern languages’; these are reported in our Big Numbers.