Why are AS level and A level numbers dipping in Wales?

Head of Research at Qualifications Wales, Tom Anderson looks at why AS level and A level numbers are dipping in Wales 

Last May we published the Wales exam entry statistics for this summer, based on data provided to us by exam boards. They showed that the total number of entries to AS level and A level qualifications in Wales has fallen in 2018. 

This summer, the 44,995 AS level entries mean a 21.1% overall decrease from the recent high of 57,030 in 2015. Similarly, although not as dramatically, A level entries shrank by 12.6% over the same period, from 38,480 entries in 2015 to 33,640 in 2018. 

So, what’s the explanation, and should we be concerned? The truth is that there’s a range of factors underlying this trend, but we shouldn’t be unduly alarmed. Let me explain why. 

As we highlighted when we published the statistics in May, the decrease in entries could be caused by a smaller population size in the age groups that most commonly take these qualifications. This would reduce the number of students that could choose to enter these qualifications. 

There are other possible factors, such as decreases in the average number of qualifications taken by students or increases in students choosing to study vocational qualifications, enter training or start apprenticeships. 

We looked at Office for National Statistics (ONS) and Welsh Government statistics on the overall population and the secondary school population in Wales to see how the number of students that can choose to study AS and A levels in Wales might be changing. 

We also gathered additional data from exam boards on the number of unique students achieving at least one result for AS level, A Level or the Advanced Welsh Baccalaureate, and compared these to the ONS and Welsh Government statistics (Figure 1 and 2).  

It is worth noting that a large proportion of 17-year-olds and 18-year-olds in Wales do not study AS or A levels and decide to go into work, study vocational or applied A level qualifications or start traineeships or apprenticeships after leaving school. This is why the number of students achieving at least one result for AS level, A Level or the Advanced Welsh Baccalaureate is much smaller than the population as described in the ONS and Welsh Government statistics. 

Most AS level entries are for 17-year-olds, whereas most A level entries are for 18-year-olds. According to both the ONS and Welsh Government statistics, the populations of these age groups have declined in Wales since 2015.   

The number of students in Wales achieving at least one result for AS level, A level or the Advanced Welsh Baccalaureate has also decreased. When comparing the rate of that decrease to the population decline seen in the ONS and Welsh Government statistics, the rate is similar for 18-year-olds, but slightly higher for 17-year-olds.  

 

These trends suggest that decreases in the population of 17 and 18-year-olds in Wales has been a major cause of the decreases in entries to AS and A level qualifications. However, there may still be other factors contributing to the decreases in entries, particularly for 17-year-olds.  

We looked at how the number of candidates in Wales achieving ‘2 or fewer’, ‘3’ or ‘4 or more’ AS level results changed between 2015 and 2017 (Figure 3). This data shows that the number of students achieving 4 AS levels decreased by 42.1%, whereas the number achieving 2 or fewer or 3 AS levels increased.  

This suggests that the drop in entries from 17-year-olds in Wales has also been caused by a decrease in the number of AS level qualifications being taken per student, as well as the decreases in the population of 17-year-olds. 

We also looked at how the number of 18-year-old students in Wales achieving ‘0’, ‘1or 2’ and ‘3 or more’ A levels changed between 2015 and 2017 (Figure 4). This data shows that the number of 18-year-olds achieving 3 or more A levels decreased by 11.5%, largely in 2016/17, whilst the number achieving 1 or 2 A levels remained stable. 

The decrease of 11.5% in students achieving 3 or more A levels is similar to the decrease in the number of 18-year-olds in the ONS and Welsh Government statistics. 

This analysis suggests that decreases in population size are driving decreases in AS and A level entries in Wales. However, there may be other factors associated with the decrease in entries, especially for entries to AS levels from 17-year-olds. 

We’ll be looking at these changes more closely over the coming months, including further exploration of what has happened in the current school year.