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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