The link between GCSE grades and A-level participation and attainment

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Selection is when students are prevented from studying particular A-levels because of them not meeting certain grade requirements. The threshold for acceptance onto A-levels which I would suggest needs our attention is between grades B and A.

This is the second of two blog posts on a piece of analysis I performed on whether there is grade-based selection for A-level subjects, you can read the previous post here. The data was sourced from the National Pupil Database, available from the Department for Education.

For the 35,015 A-level psychologists who studied at school sixth forms in 2014, the modal grade achieved at GCSE level in each of the facilitating subjects (except biology) was B. Biology is exceptional here at least in part due to psychology A-level being a relatively-popular subject choice for high-achieving GCSE biologists. These relatively small discrepancies aside, the GCSE grade distributions here are similar to the grade distributions of the A-level cohort as a whole, seen in the second graph in the previous blog post.

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GCSE grades of students who studied A-level psychology

In contrast to psychology, A-level physics students achieve predominantly A* and A grades in their GCSEs in the facilitating subjects. Although these graphs may imply selection is occurring, we can’t begin to suggest to what extent schools may be enforcing it, or which students are being more subtly dissuaded from studying A-levels in subjects such as physics and maths.

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GCSE grades of students who studied A-level physics

The recent increase in the toughness of GCSE marking was something I did bear in mind during this analysis. Unfortunately there has only been sufficient time for these changes to feed through to AS-level participation figures. However, when examination data from summer 2015 are released in early 2016, I will re-run these analyses.

An interesting question I would now like to ask is: currently, would it be responsible for a teacher to encourage or even allow a B grade achiever at GCSE physics to continue onto the A-level course? The A-level grade distributions in the graph below may be of use in answering this for physics:

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A-level physics grades for students who achieved A*, A or B in GCSE physics

Worth bearing in mind is that the average difference in A-level physics grade between A and B physics GCSE achievers (the red and green lines on the graph) is less than one grade. And more than 92% of students who achieved a B in GCSE physics went on to pass the A-level.

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6 thoughts on “The link between GCSE grades and A-level participation and attainment

  1. I have often thought that a students maths GCSE result is a better predictor of their A-level physics outcome (compared to using their physics GCSE).

    I believe this to be so because A-level physics is maths heavy and while students enjoy GCSE physics they are often surprised by the increased mathematical input requires at A-level. Indeed those Y12 students who don’t make it into Y13, in the main, don’t take A-level Maths as well.

    I would be interested to know if you have performed an analysis on using maths GCSE as a predictor of A-level physics outcomes. I think the correlation would be better.

  2. Hi Dr West,

    Thanks for your reply! Those are two really interesting points there. I’m planning to feed GCSE maths grade and A-level maths participation into the statistical modelling work I’m soon to do on AS- to A-level drop-outs, and also into similar modelling of A-level grade outcomes if I get the chance to do that as well.

    We’ll publish that work, and I’ll make sure I let you know when we do.



  3. Thank you for your research.
    My son has just received his GCSE results and got a rather disappointing B in physics which he wishes to study at A level. He is genuinely dyslexic (cue eye roll and comments about middle class excuses for stupidity) but his Cs in English and T&P really do represent a massive achievement for him personally. However I’m hoping that his A star in maths will stand him in good enough stead to cope with physics A level and would be very interested to see if this is a reliable indicator. Not that we have !much choice – if he’s going to do A levels then it’s maths physics and computing or nothing for him. I’m afraid some kids are academically one trick ponies.!

    • Hi Nicola,

      That’s a really interesting question. Obviously there’s a lot of things at play that could affect your son’s experiences of studying A-level physics, but we can indeed use his GCSE results as an interesting indicator of his potential A-level outcomes.

      I’ve looked at the cohort of students that studied their GCSEs in 2013 and went on to study their AS-levels in 2014 and A-levels in 2015. Those who achieved an A* in GCSE maths and a B in GCSE physics achieved better grades at AS- and A-level physics compared to students that achieved an A or B in maths along with a B in physics. You can see all of this in the tables below – apologies if the formatting isn’t great. Hopefully it’s still understandable!

      A-level physics grades for students that achieved B in GCSE physics and A* in GCSE maths (n=416)
      A-level physics grade % of students % of students (cumulative)
      A* 0.96 0.96
      A 4.33 5.29
      B 16.59 21.88
      C 29.81 51.68
      D 28.13 79.81
      E 17.07 96.88
      U 3.13 100
      A-level physics grades for students that achieved B in GCSE physics and A or B in GCSE maths (n=1,928)
      A-level physics grade % of students % of students (cumulative)
      A* 0.16 0.16
      A 1.71 1.87
      B 6.85 8.71
      C 20.8 29.51
      D 28.89 58.4
      E 33.2 91.6
      U 8.4 100

      Achieving A* (rather than an A or B) in maths alongside a B in physics was also associated with a much lower drop-out rate between AS- and A-level physics (60% of students with a B in GCSE physics and A* in GCSE maths progressed from AS- to A-level physics compared to 30% of those with a B in GCSE physics and A or B in GCSE maths). Even though the structure of AS- and A-level examinations has changed significantly this year (the ‘linear’ course that no longer requires external examination after year 12), this should hopefully still be some form of indicator that better GCSE maths grades can help students successfully complete the A-level course.

      I hope this helps your son make his mind up about his A-level choices!

      Best wishes,


  4. Hi,

    Do children who take triple science at GCSE go on to get better grades at A level science than those who take core science? I can’t find any research to back this up, if it is true.

    Apart from the factor of schools selecting only ‘bright’ students to do triple science, this would still seem logical as triple science would give a stronger base. I am concerned for my daughter who is likely to be excluded from triple science (as she is not predicted to achieve A grade GCSEs), but who is more interested in a science-based career than anything else. Why would schools not encourage motivated kids to take triple science GCSE and get Bs or Cs and go on to get A level science B/C rather than C/D. Is it just down to performance league tables?

  5. I think A level Physics requires a good hold on maths, which is the reason they don’t take it up. Even as a faculty, I agree that the gap between GCSE and A Level should be reduced.

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