Belfast Telegraph

Exams: Top grade A-level passes in Northern Ireland falls

The proportion of A-level students achieving the highest grade in Northern Ireland has fallen.

Almost 33,000 pupils received their results today, and around 7.2% were awarded an A* - a decrease of half a percentage point on last year.

Particularly high numbers achieved good grades in mathematics, chemistry and modern languages, the organisation overseeing qualifications said, and an extra 1,373 entries earned grades A-E compared to five years ago.

Traditional subjects were most popular but an increased number taking science and technology subjects showed young people were thinking about their futures, a spokeswoman for the Joint Council for Qualifications said.

Qualifications director Anne Marie Duffy said: "It would appear to me that students are choosing traditional subjects which they feel will further their employment opportunities or their access to further and higher educations."

The proportion of A*-C grades was unchanged at almost 84% but there was a decrease in the percentage of entries achieving the top A*-A grades, dropping to just over 30% this year compared to almost 32% last year.

The number winning top marks remained roughly the same but more pupils entered and achieved lesser grades, pushing the overall percentage at the top down.

While girls outperformed boys overall, at the highest level the gap closed notably, with the performance of girls falling from 8% achieving an A* last year to 7% this year.

Biology, mathematics and religious studies were the most popular subjects. The number studying Spanish has risen consistently over the last five years.

The proportion achieving an A*-A fell from 36% in 2010 to 31% now.

The qualifications organisation recorded rises in the number of entries in mathematics, further mathematics, ICT, chemistry and physics. Biology accounted for a tenth of overall entries. Business studies also saw an increase, by 14% or 174 pupils, and was the 10th most popular subject.

The number of candidates taking single award applied qualifications (aimed at developing a particular skill or expertise) rose.

Ms Duffy said efforts were being made to ensure qualifications were more work-related. An A-level on software and systems development is to be introduced in September to encourage a greater uptake in the field of computing.

Education chiefs also believe efforts to encourage pupils to enrol for STEM subjects such as science and mathematics have been successful.

While Spanish and Irish recorded attracted increased proportions of entries, only Spanish has seen a consistent rise over the last five years.

Entries in French and German continued to fall, with French down 8.5% on last year and German down by a fifth.

Exam chiefs stressed the need to treat statistical changes over one year with caution, pointing to declines in subjects such as psychology, which posted an increase this time last year. Art and design entries fell by 15% while communication studies had no entries.

Ms Duffy added: "At a time when overall student numbers have been decreasing, it is pleasing to see that Northern Ireland students continue to enter for GCE courses in such high numbers."

This summer 1,373 more candidates achieved A*-E pass grades than five years ago.

The senior civil servant said: "The success in attracting more and more students to study STEM subjects is also welcome, as is the strong performance of students in mathematics, chemistry and modern languages."

Just over a quarter of entrants for AS-levels achieved an A.

Overall, students in Northern Ireland enjoy a 4.4% lead in the number of A*s awarded - a total of 2,364 - over counterparts in parts of Great Britain.

Andrew O'Neill, 18, from Ahoghill in Co Antrim, achieved four A*s in mathematics, physics, chemistry and biology and is waiting for confirmation of his place to study medicine at Trinity College in Dublin. He wants to be a surgeon.

"I did not expect to do this well, I did not expect to get four A*s," he said.

"I am really, really pleased about it."

His school principal at Ballymena Academy, Ronnie Hassard, said 82% of his pupils were awarded grades A* to C.

"That is the kind of benchmark that schools are judged and assessed against and 82% would be well above average," he said.

Around 500 A-level grades were awarded to his pupils, 91% earning C or above.

The headteacher said: "What we have here is a properly-motivated group of pupils with supportive and hard-working staff as well.

"Our young people are focused, they are beginning to register that what they get at age 18 is going to be important for the rest of their lives so they do focus on A-level."

He said there was a tradition of studying STEM subjects even before the term was coined - this year around half the grades awarded at the Co Antrim school were for STEM courses.

"In those subjects, particularly the sciences, it is hard to get the high grades so there has to be very careful and supportive teaching to achieve good grades," Mr Hassard said.

"In vocational terms, those are subject areas which employers increasingly want young people to bring to them.

"Young people and parents are thinking 'If my child is going to go on to university for three or four years and if we are going to make a significant financial investment, how do we get a best return, and the best return is through STEM subjects'."

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