Academic Year 2020/21

A level and other 16 to 18 results

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  1. Updated to add data on retention measures

  2. The 'total stem subjects' aggregation within the A level entries and results (end of 16-18 study) measure has been corrected.

Due to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, the summer exam series was cancelled in both 2020 and 2021, and alternative processes were set up to award grades.

In both 2019/20 and 2020/21 attainment shows increases compared to 2018/19, higher than would be expected in a typical year. This likely reflects the changes to the way GCSE and A/AS and VTQ grades were awarded rather than improvements in student performance. This means the 2019/20 and 2020/21 data should not be directly compared to attainment data from previous years for the purposes of measuring change in student performance.


Headline facts and figures - 2020/21

  • All level 3 exam cohorts showed increases in Average Point Score (APS) per entry compared to 2018/19  (extending increases seen in 2019/20, the first year of the alternative processes to award grades; an increase of 10 points is equivalent to an increase of one full grade):

                    A level  (+7.8ppts) >>  applied general (+4.4ppts)  >> tech level (+3.3ppts)

      A/AS levels in 2020/21 are predominately based on teacher-assessed grades (TAGs). Similarly, VTQ grades were decided using teacher-assessed grades, but also using normal assessment routes, and some through adapted assessment such as remote invigilation.

 

  • All institution types have seen large increases in average A level points since 2018/19. The largest increase has been for ‘other FE sector’ colleges (8.8 points). For all independent schools the average point score increased by 8.4, compared to 8.0 for all state-funded schools and 5.9 for sixth form colleges.

 

  • At A level the gap in attainment between disadvantaged and non-disadvantaged students has narrowed slightly since 2018/19, but remains approaching half a grade. However, the disadvantage gap for applied general and tech level qualifications has widened slightly year-on-year from 2018/19 to 2020/21.

 

  • Overall, in 2020/21 both males and females were more likely to be awarded the higher A level grades (A*/A/B) than in 2018/19 and in 2019/20.  Increases were larger for females, and this continues the trend observed in 2019/20, where a higher  proportion of females were awarded the top A* and A*-A grades. This is also a reversal of the gender gap in achievement at these grades seen in 2017/18 and 2018/19.

 

  • Females continue to make up 44% of all STEM entries at A level. Female attainment at top A* and A*-A grades has increased more than for males across all STEM subjects between 2018/19 and 2020/21. In 2020/21 chemistry is the only STEM subject where males remain more likely to achieve grade A* (and females are more likely to achieve A*-A and A*-B across every STEM subject).

 

  • Broadly speaking, for other student characteristic breakdowns (ethnicity, SEN provision, first language and more) changes in assessment have increased average results, but have not led to notable changes in attainment gaps.

 

  • The percentage of students who completed their main study programme, known as the retention rate, increased across all level 3 programmes in 2020/21. 

 

  • The retention rate improved for disadvantaged students, and there were also some large increases in retention rates for students with the lowest average KS4 prior attainment (grade 0<4). However, changes to the trigger rule has disproportionately impacted students from these groups.

 

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COVID-19: exam assessment in 2020 and 2021

Due to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, the summer exam series was cancelled in both 2020 and 2021, and alternative processes set up to award grades. As the method to award grades was different in 2020 and 2021, in this statistical release comparisons for both years will generally be made back to 2019.

 

GCSE and A/AS

In 2020 students scheduled to sit GCSE and A/AS level exams in the summer were awarded either a centre assessment grade (CAG, based on what the school or college believed the student would most likely have achieved had exams gone ahead) or their calculated grade using a model developed by Ofqual - whichever was the higher of the two.

In summer 2021 students were awarded grades based on an assessment by their teachers using a range of available evidence (TAG). Students were only assessed on the content they had been taught.

Vocational and technical qualifications

For vocational and technical qualifications (VTQs) in 2020, where centre assessment was used, grades were often available at unit level, and awarding organisations were able to use assessments already completed during the course as a basis for calculating the results they issued. For some qualifications, adapted assessment also meant centre assessment grades were not needed. 

Similarly in 2021 some VTQ grades were decided using teacher-assessed grades, others using normal assessment routes, and some through adapted assessment such as remote invigilation.

For further information on the process to award grades in 2020 and 2021 see the following links:

https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/coronavirus-covid-19-cancellation-of-gcses-as-and-a-levels-in-2020/coronavirus-covid-19-cancellation-of-gcses-as-and-a-levels-in-2020

https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/awarding-qualifications-in-summer-2021/awarding-qualifications-in-summer-2021

 

Reporting of 2021 results by the Joint Council for Qualifications (JCQ) and Ofqual

As happens every year on A level results day (10 August for summer 2021 results) JCQ published data on A level entries for qualifications awarded in summer 2021, and for each subject the distribution of grades awarded (with data for the previous summer for reference): https://www.jcq.org.uk/examination-results/

The data published by JCQ can be expected to show the same broad patterns as the underlying data published in this statistical release ‘Entries and results – A level and AS by subject and student characteristics (single academic year)'. However, the coverage of the data is different: JCQ data covers all A level entries in the UK by people of all ages. Data in this statistical release covers exam entries by 16 to 18 year olds in schools and colleges in England, and includes breakdowns by a wide range of student characteristics.

In addition, Ofqual also routinely publish data on results day: https://www.gov.uk/government/news/guide-to-as-and-a-level-results-for-england-2021

More exceptionally though in 2021 (and 2020) Ofqual also published ‘equalities’ analyses for GCSE/A levels, and VTQ grades awarded based on statistical modelling. Those models looked at changes in awarding patterns over time for students with protected characteristics whilst taking into account other student characteristics and circumstances, as part of evaluating the TAG process to award grades in 2021.  This contrasts with the data for student characteristics published in this statistical release which are simpler descriptive statistics, and so more relatable to the real-world outcomes for students in 2020/21.

Changes to the data in 2020/21

Deciding when a student is at the end of 16 to 18 study

Students are included in this statistical release when they reach the end of 16 to 18 study. The so-called ‘trigger’ rules for deciding when this happens changed in 2020/21 . As set out  in the Methodology guidance, students are no longer automatically triggered after spending two years in the same school or college. The two remaining criteria for assessing a student to be at the end of 16 to 18 study are by entering 2 A levels or other equally substantial level 3 qualification(s), or by turning 18 in that academic year.

This two-year rule has been removed from 2020/21 to reduce the number of students being triggered too early. That had created a burden on schools and colleges to tell us about those students through a ‘checking exercise’, where students could be removed from the data in between provisional and revised versions of statistics (but reported the following year when the student was 18).

The impact of the trigger rule change is to reduce the number of students reported in accountability measures in 2020/21, but numbers will return to normal from 2021/22.

The table below shows the technical impact of the rule change by comparing headline attainment measures and the English and maths progress measures produced for 2020/21 data both with the old and new trigger rules. 

 

  Potential 16-18 studentsA level APS per entryApplied general APS per entryTech level APS per entryTechnical certificate APS per entryEnglish progressMaths progress
Number of studentswith trigger change479,879271,07285,83220,2133,30853,52476,844
without trigger change596,422274,09798,77526,0028,484107,833141,735
Performance measurewith trigger changen/a41.6032.8231.765.640.1590.242
without trigger changen/a41.5331.9130.565.740.4220.392
Impact of trigger changeNumber of students-20%-1%-13%-22%-61%-50%-46%
Performance measuren/a+0.07+0.91+1.20-0.10-0.26-0.15

The impact on A level volumes is modest. The impact is more significant for students entering vocational and technical qualifications (VTQs) who are more likely not to enter qualifications until their 3rd year in the 16 to 18 phase, and especially if they first study at level 2. Some level 2 students don’t enter level 3 qualifications at all aged 16-18, which accounts for the much smaller technical certificate cohort, and students re-taking English and maths qualifications.

Smaller cohorts in 2020/21 don’t translate into big impacts on attainment. The impact on A level headline attainment is small (increase of less than 1/100th of a grade), with slightly larger changes in vocational and technical qualifications (increases or decreases of about 1/10th of a grade). However, changes in the English and maths progress measure are much bigger and, as is shown later in this release, lead to apparent falls in English and maths progress compared to previous years which in reality are entirely due to the rule-change.

Other changes continuing from the 2019/20 release

Given the alternative process to award grades in 2020 and 2021 the government announced that it would continue to not publish any school or college level performance data based on grades awarded in 2021, as per 2020, nor would attainment data from either year be used by DfE or others to hold schools and colleges to account. The data used in this statistical release continues to be adapted as a result:

  • The checking exercise was cancelled, therefore statistics labelled as ‘provisional’ will not be updated to ‘revised’ data in January;
  • Characteristic breakdowns usually published in January have been brought forward to the provisional release;
  • Level 3 value-added data continues to not be created.
  • The points scale for the English and maths progress measure changed in 2019/20 to reflect the change in GCSE grading from A*-G to 9-1.

A fuller description of the changes introduced in 2019/20 is set out in the Quality and Methodology documentation.

Introduction: students and results reported in these statistics

Unless stated otherwise statistics reported here refer to 16 to 18 year olds in England:

  • who reached the end of their 16 to 18 study in 2020/21 (students typically spend either two or three years in the 16 to 18 phase, and attainment includes results from qualifications entered during all those years). 
  • who entered qualifications approved for reporting in 2021 school and college performance tables, set out in the 16 to 18 qualifications, discount codes and point scores guidance.

Qualifications are grouped into A level (subset of Academic), Applied General, and Tech Level exam cohorts at level 3, and Technical Certificates at level 2. Students can be reported in more than one exam cohort. 

 

Student numbers by cohort 

Students are included in this statistical release when they reach the end of their 16 to 18 study in schools and colleges in England. As set out in the section ‘Changes to the data in 2020/21’ and in Methodology guidance, the rules for determining when that happens changed in 2020/21, and students are no longer triggered after spending two years in the same school or college.

This change means fewer students are eligible and is why there is a 20.3% decrease in potential students (potential because students must additionally enter approved qualifications to be reported in attainment measures). The impact of the change is felt more strongly in students that enter vocational and technical qualifications, where students are more likely to enter level 3 qualifications in their third year of study.

The impact on the number of students studying for technical certificate qualifications has been large (61.7% decrease) however, numbers are expected to return to pre-rule change levels next year.

Applied general and tech level student numbers have also been impacted by the rule change, however underlying growth in the number of students studying for approved qualifications has largely offset the impact of the trigger change (without the trigger change in 2020/21 the number of applied general and tech level students would have been 98,775 and 26,002 respectively, higher than both 2018/19 and 2019/20). The growth in number of students studying for applied general and tech level qualifications likely reflects how schools and colleges responded to reforms to level 3 qualifications in 2017/18. 

The number of students studying for A levels has remained steady after several years of decline. The reforms towards A level qualifications (the decoupling of A and AS levels) are now complete. 

Attainment: Average point score (APS) per entry by exam cohort

Summary

These figures give the average points and average result that students achieved throughout their 16 to 18 study. While the majority of results come from the student’s final year of study (in particular for A levels), some results reflect entries in previous years. Changes to rules on when students are eligible for reporting in this statistical release had a small impact on the average point scores (see the section ‘Changes to the data in 2020/21’). 

Points are given to all qualifications so we can compare qualifications of different size and grading structures. A maximum of 60 points are available for A level, 50 points for applied general and tech level and 8 points for technical certificates.  More information on points, APS bands and grade boundaries can be found in the technical guide for 16 to 18 accountability measures (from page 26).

The average A level result is higher in 2020/21 than it was when we last had externally assessed examinations in 2018/19. The increase in the average result is from C+ to B ( from 33.77 to 41.60 points; a 7.8 points increase, where 10 points is equivalent to an increase of one full grade.)  The change is largely due to the use of alternative assessment arrangements.

Applied general and tech level have also seen increases in average results. The average result for each cohort increased from Merit+ to Dist-. (An increase of 4.4 points for applied general and 3.3 points for tech levels). The process of awarding grades for these qualifications means that a student’s result likely contains a mix of assessment from each of the previous 2 years. This may account for the smaller increases in average point score for these qualifications compared to A levels since 2018/19.

Across all level 3 cohorts, increased attainment was seen between 2018/19 and 2019/20, and then again between 2019/20 and 2020/21. 

Technical certificates (level 2) have seen little change to the average points score and the average result has remained unchanged since 2018/19 when approved qualifications were reformed.

APS and average results by region

Regions with the highest APS per entry by exam cohort

 2018/192019/202020/21
Average points - A levelSouth EastSouth EastLondon
Average points - applied generalWest MidlandsWest MidlandsYorkshire and The Humber
Average points - tech levelLondonLondonLondon

Regions with the lowest APS per entry by exam cohort

 2018/192019/202020/21
Average points - A levelWest MidlandsWest MidlandsWest Midlands
Average points - applied generalSouth EastEast of EnglandEast of England
Average points - tech levelWest MidlandsNorth EastEast of England

Since 2018/19, London has seen the highest increase in average A level points (8.5 points), making it this year’s highest scoring region. Over the previous five-year period, the South East had been the highest scoring region. However, the region has seen the smallest increase in average A level points (6.9 points). (An increase of 10 points is equivalent to an increase of one full grade). 

The West Midlands has consistently had the lowest average A level points throughout the changes in awarding grades. However, the increase seen by the region (8.2 points) means that the gap in average A level points between the highest and lowest performing regions has closed. This narrowing of regional differences in A level point scores has seen the North West move from 2nd to 5th highest scoring region between 2018/19 and 2020/21. The average result for all regions is now grade B.

Tech levels have also seen the gap between the highest and lowest performing regions close. All regions currently have an average result of Dist-. 

Conversely, the gap for applied generals has widened. In 2018/19 all regions had an average result of Merit+ but in 2020/21 spans Dist- to Dist.

Attainment: APS per entry by gender, disadvantage, and other characteristics

Average results by disadvantage status

The increase in average A level points was slightly larger for disadvantaged students between 2018/19 and 2020/21 (8.0 points vs 7.7 points for non-disadvantaged students). Consequently, the gap between disadvantaged and non-disadvantaged students has narrowed slightly over the last two years.  Overall,  disadvantaged A level students achieved an average result of approximately half a grade lower than their non-disadvantaged peers in 2020/21 (similar to 2018/19). 

Non-disadvantaged students had a larger increase in average points score for applied general (4.7 points vs 3.6 points for disadvantaged students) and tech level qualifications (3.5 points vs 2.6 points for disadvantaged students). Consequently, the gap between disadvantaged and non-disadvantaged students in these qualifications has increased since 2018/19.

To get a fuller picture on the impact of disadvantage status, this data should be looked at in conjunction with data on retention rates. In 2019/20, 91.8% of non-disadvantaged A level students were retained and assessed compared to 84.2% of disadvantaged students. Students are only included in the average point score measure if they are entered for examination i.e. if they are retained and assessed. More information on 2019/20 retention can be found in the 2019/20 version of this statistical release. An update to this statistical release with 2020/21 retention figures will be released in May 2022. 

Average results by gender

Average results for female students have increased more than for male students across all level 3 cohorts, reversing the gender gap seen in tech levels in 2018/19.  The gender gap is widest for the applied general cohort where female students achieved on average just over 1/3 of a grade more than male students. The gap was smallest for the tech level cohort where male students achieved a result approximately 1/10th of a grade lower.

Male students made greater gains in the percentage of students achieving at least 2 A levels. Here the gender gap has narrowed from 3.6ppts in 2018/19 to 1.1ppts in 2020/21. 

Average results for other student characteristics

Breakdowns of other student characteristics, including ethnicity, SEN provision, first language and more, are available in the featured tables and create your own tables sections of this statistical release. Changes in assessment have increased average results but have not led to notable changes in attainment gaps for these characteristics. 

Attainment: APS per entry by institution type

Average point score and average result for A level by institution type 

All institution types have seen large increases in average A level points since 2018/19. The largest increase has been for other FE sector colleges (8.8 points). For all independent schools the average point score increased by 8.4, compared to 8.0 for all state-funded schools and 5.9 for sixth form colleges. (An increase of 10 points is equivalent to an increase of one full grade.) Most of the increase in average points occurred between 2018/19 and 2019/20. Increases were smaller this year across all institution types. 

Further detail is provided in the table for different types of state-funded school showing some variation in outcomes, though note that data for some institution types are based on small numbers of students. 

The percentage of students achieving at least 2 A levels has increased across all institution types. Other FE sector colleges have seen the largest increase of the main institution types, 19.6ppts since 2018/19. 

All institution types have seen increases in average points for applied general qualifications since 2018/19. The largest increase was in all independent schools (5.2 points) and the smallest in other FE sector colleges (3.2 points). Between 2018/19 and 2019/20, other FE sector colleges had the smallest increase in average points. This year other FE sector colleges are the only institution type to have a larger increase than the previous year. 

Increases for tech levels have been more modest across institution types. The main providers, other FE sector colleges and all state-funded schools, saw increases from 2018/19 of 3.1 and 3.6 points respectively. 

Changes in average points score for technical certificate have not followed the same pattern as level 3 qualifications. Other FE sector colleges are the main providers of technical certificates. Here the average result has remained steady throughout the changes to assessment. Caution should be used when interpreting the changes for some institution types as student numbers are very low.

Attainment in 20/21: A level grade distribution by characteristics and institution type

Summary

Data in this section covers A level entries and results for all students aged 16 to 18 at the start of respective year. It is not impacted by the change in the ‘trigger’ rules that determine when a student has reached the end of 16 to 18 study.

The graph below shows the distribution of A level grades for students aged 16 to 18 for each academic year. Overall, the proportion of entries achieving top grades (A*/A/B) has increased each year. 

In 2020/21, 19.0% of awarded grades were at A*. This is an increase of 11.2ppts from 2018/19, and an increase of 4.8ppts from 2019/20. Similarly, the percentage of entries achieving A*-A grades has also seen large increases, rising to 44.1%. This corresponds to increases of 18.7ppts and 6.1ppts from 2018/19 and 2019/20 respectively. As previously noted however, year on year comparisons cannot be interpreted as students achieving at a higher standard. Where achievement gaps alter in 2020/21 compared to previous years, it might reflect the different process by which grades were awarded across the past three years.

A level results by gender

Overall, in 2020/21 both males and females were more likely to be awarded the higher A level grades (A*/A/B) than in 2018/19 and in 2019/20.

Increases were larger for females, and this continues the trend observed in 2019/20, where a higher proportion of females were awarded the top A* and A*-A grades. This is also a reversal of the gender gap in achievement at these grades seen in 2017/18 and 2018/19.
At A*-B the gap between female and male achievement has been continuously increasing for the last three years, where female students are more likely to achieve these grades.

A level results by disadvantage

The proportion of non-disadvantaged and disadvantaged students achieving A* grades has increased over the past three years. However, there have been bigger increases for non-disadvantaged students. 

From 2018/19 to 2020/21, the percentage of disadvantaged students achieving A* has increased from 3.2% to 9.6% (6.4ppts) and the percentage of non-disadvantaged students achieving A* grades has increased from 6.9% to 16.8% (9.8ppts).  This means that the disadvantage gap has widened at this top grade. 

A similar pattern is observed when considering A*-A grades. The pattern at A*-B and beyond is that the gap has narrowed compared to 2018/19 although it is slightly greater than last year.

A level grades by institution

The proportion of entries awarded at A* and A grades at A level has increased across nearly all institution types for the past three years.

Independent schools have awarded more A level grades at A* since 2018/19 (increasing 23.6ppts), more than twice the corresponding increases in A* grades awarded at state-funded schools (10.3ppts) However state-funded schools have seen an increase in attainment that is more evenly distributed across A and A* grades.

This is consistent with the average point score for both institution types increasing by around 0.8 grades since 18/19. (That increase in independent schools translates into more A* grades as their attainment was already higher.)

Attainment in 20/21: A level grade distribution by STEM subject

Data in this section covers A level entries and results for all students aged 16 to 18 at the start of respective year. It is not impacted by the change in the ‘trigger’ rules that determine when a student has reached the end of 16 to 18 study.

A level grades by STEM subjects

The STEM subjects (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Maths) have generally seen large increases in the proportion of students achieving top grades when compared to 2018/19. The largest increase at A* was in further maths which rose by 24.3ppts, and the smallest increase was in biology at 11.1ppts. The A*-A grade boundary also observed large increases in the proportion of entries achieving these grades, ranging from computer science (26.1ppts increase) to maths (13.3ppts increase).

The different pattern for further maths (more grades at A* rather than increases across A*-A) reflects that attainment is historically higher in this subject, as higher achieving maths students tend to also enter further maths.

STEM subjects by gender

The proportion of overall entries in STEM subjects from female students is unchanged in 2018/19, 2019/20, and 2020/21 at 44%, though there remains considerably fewer female entries in physics and computer science than in other STEM subjects.

In 2018/19 males were more likely than females to achieve A* grades in four out of the six STEM subjects (higher numbers in chemistry, physics, maths, further maths; lower in biology and computer science).

In contrast, in 2020/21 females are more likely to achieve grade A* in all STEM subjects except Chemistry (and are more likely to achieve A*-A and A*-B across all STEM subjects).

English and maths progress

Since August 2014, students on 16-19 study programmes of 150 hours or more who do not hold a GCSE grade 9-4 (or equivalent qualification) in English and/or maths, are required to study these subjects under Condition of Funding rules. 

 

Calculating progress, and how points are assigned to English and maths qualifications 

The English and maths progress measure is based on a scale which ranges from 0 to 9 points, depending on the type of qualification taken and the grade achieved. A student's progress is calculated by subtracting the points associated with their best grade during 16 to 18 study from their points at the end of key stage 4. Students who do not enter any approved exams during 16 to 18 study automatically score -1 progress. A list of the qualifications eligible for inclusion in these measures, and their points, can be found among the files available to download. 

See the Methodology section for details of how points relate to grades, and the change in points scale in 2019/20.

Data on a level 3 maths measure, and entries to below Level 3 English and maths qualifications, along with further data on English and maths progress, is available in the table builder and to download in the associated files. 

 

Summary

In addition to being impacted by the alternative process to award results in 2020 and 2021, the English and maths progress measures have been heavily impacted by the rule change for deciding when a student is at the end of 16 to 18 study (see section ‘Changes to data in 2020/21’). This has resulted in a reduction in the number of students in scope of the measure by approximately half. Without the change in reporting, overall English and maths progress in 2020/21 would have been 0.422 and 0.392 respectively, higher than both 2018/19 and 2019/20.

The impact of the reporting change is bigger for English and maths progress than attainment cohorts as many students re-taking English and maths during 16 to 18 study are not also taking substantial level 3 courses. In the absence of the two-year reporting rule those students will now be reported after three years instead of two (i.e. in 2021/22).  The lower progress of students that remain and are reported in 2020/21 likely reflects differences in student characteristics between students who enter level 3 qualifications vs. those entering lower-level qualifications during the 16 to 18 phase. Consequently, comparisons between characteristic groups are less meaningful this year. The cohort will return to normal next year.

Institution types

The FE Sector saw a large decrease in English and maths progress this year. This is likely associated with these institutions having a larger reduction in cohort numbers than did schools, and students in the FE Sector previously being more likely to be reported due to the ‘2 year rule’. If this is the case, we would not expect to see this pattern next year when the cohort sizes return to normal.

Entries in reformed vocational and technical qualifications

Applied general, tech level, and technical certificate qualifications approved for reporting in this statistical release (and performance tables) are updated annually and published on gov.uk: 

https://www.gov.uk/government/collections/performance-tables-technical-and-vocational-qualifications

The concept of qualifications approved for reporting has been applied since 2015/16 following Professor Alison Wolf's Review of Vocational Education. From 2017/18 at level 3 and from 2018/19 for technical certificates, the quality threshold for vocational and technical qualifications to be included in performance measures further increased. The later reforms include criteria relating to the size, content, and assessment, including a requirement that a proportion of a qualification's content is subject to external assessment.

The measures presented in this section show the students entering these approved qualifications as a proportion of students entering the wider set of vocational qualifications approved by the Education and Skills Funding Agency (ESFA) for funding during 16 to 18 study. As based on entries, these metrics were largely unaffected by the changes to grade awarding processes this year.

Proportions entering approved tech level and applied general qualifications continue to increase following a large fall in 2017/18 (when both lists of approved qualifications changed substantially); likewise the proportion of students entering approved technical certificate qualifications has increased following a large fall in 2018/19, when that list changed substantially.

The following table shows that there is considerable variation in whether different institution types enter students for qualifications approved for reporting in performance tables versus the wider set of qualifications approved for funding.

An increasing majority of students in independent schools and state-funded schools in 2019/20 entered approved qualifications since 2017/18 when qualifications were reformed; conversely in sixth form colleges and other FE sectors colleges, whilst a higher proportion of students now enter approved qualifications, the majority still do not.

State-funded schools lead the adoption of reformed tech levels, however these still make up just over 1/3rd of vocational entries at level 3. Take up of reformed versions of technical certificates is low across all institution types, but in particular in sixth form colleges.

Retention: Introduction and changes to the data in 2020/21

Introduction to retention

The headline retention measure shows the percentage of students who completed their main study programme at a provider. A student’s main study programme is also known as a core aim.

Students are counted as retained if they are recorded as having “completed the learning activities leading to the learning aim” by their institution. This information is collected in the school census or for students that attended sixth form or FE colleges, the Individualised Learner Record (ILR).

The headline retention measure is calculated by dividing the total number of students retained by the total number of students in scope, for each of the five core aim programmes approved for reporting in performance tables: academic, A level, applied general, tech level, and at level 2, technical certificate programmes. 

Since academic programmes comprise largely of A levels, only data for A level core aims are shown here; overall data for academic programmes can be found in the ‘create your own tables’ section and in the underlying data available to download.

Retention data in 2019/20 and 2020/21 during COVID-19

Observed increases in retention rates could be due to the cancellation of exams in the last two years, rather than necessarily reflecting changes in behaviour. 

Students may have been recorded as completing their learning aim when they may not have finished their course had it continued to the end of the 2019/20 academic year, following schools and colleges closing for most students at the end of March 2020, or a learning aim marked as complete when just part of the syllabus had been delivered in 2020/21.

Impact of the trigger change on reported headline retention rates

The impact of the trigger change is to reduce the reported number of students in scope for headline retention across all exam cohorts in 2020/21, with the biggest impact on vocational and technical cohorts (VTQs).

The impact of the trigger changes is to increase retention rates slightly in level 3 cohorts (A level, applied general, tech level) than would have been seen otherwise. However, the impact on the level 2 technical certificate cohort is a large decrease in reported headline retention.

Fuller analysis can be found in the methodology document.

Headline and additional retention measures for the last 3 years

Headline Retention

All level 3 study programmes show increases in retention rates in 2020/21. A level programmes continue to have the highest retention rate as has been the case since the measure was introduced in 2015/16. 

In 2019/20 it was noted that A level retention rates had increased for the first time, and that trend has continued with retention rising again in 2020/21. Compared to 2018/19, the retention for A level students has increased from 91.3% to 94.1% (2.8ppts).

Applied general and tech level programmes have also increased again, rising by 3.3ppts and 2.7ppts respectively when compared to 2018/19.

Technical certificates have continued their trend of year-on-year decreases in headline retention since 2017/18. However, this cohort was impacted by the trigger change more strongly than level 3 cohorts;  retention would have been stable without the trigger change.

Alongside the headline retention measure there are two supporting retention measures:

1) Retained and assessed: The percentage of students who are retained to the end of their course and are assessed. 
Note exam assessments for the last two years have been COVID-19 impacted. In 2020/21 results have been largely based on teacher assessed grades (TAGs).

2) Returned and retained for a second year: The percentage of level 3 students who return to the same provider and complete their programme of study in their second year.

 

Retained and assessed

The percentage of students retained and assessed has increased across all level 3 study programmes. When compared to 2018/19, the A level programmes have increased by 3.9ppts, whilst applied general and tech level programmes have seen relatively larger rises (7.5ppts and 10.4ppts respectively).

The percentage of students retained and assessed for level 2 technical certificate programmes is consistently lower than for level 3 study programmes.

Returned and retained for a second year

The proportion of students returned and retained for a second year has increased across all level 3 study programmes. In comparison to 2018/19, A level programmes saw a 7.7ppts increase, and applied general and tech level programmes saw rises of 6.5ppts and 5.7ppts respectively. 

Technical certificates are not included in this measure as typically they are not expected to be two years long.

Retention measures by prior attainment

Distribution of students in level 3 programmes of study

The distribution of students’ prior attainment has shifted upwards this year. This is partly because KS4 attainment levels were higher in 2018/19 than 2017/18 and partly due to the changes to the trigger rule set out above.

The large majority of students with the highest prior attainment continue to choose A level programmes. High prior attainers make up 26.5% of the A level cohort compared to 1.3% of the applied general and 1.7% of the tech level cohort.  

Given the relationship between higher prior attainment and higher retention rates, this likely explains why A level retention rates continue to be higher than those for vocational and technical qualifications. 

Headline retention and prior attainment

Overall, students with average prior attainment of grade 7 or more are more likely to be retained in their main programme of study than those with prior attainment from grade 4 up to grade 7. Students with prior attainment of grade 0 up to grade 4 are least likely to be retained. 

These gaps in retention rates are particularly pronounced for A level programmes, where prior attainment has the largest impact on retention rates. 

Compared to 2018/19, students in 2020/21 with average prior attainment below grade 4 had the largest increases in retention across all level 3 programmes of study. 

In 2020/21, A level students with the lowest prior attainment have a retention rate 5.4ppts higher than 2018/19 (4.1ppts higher than 2019/20). For applied general the increase from 2018/19 is 4.1ppts and for tech levels the increase is 2.2ppts. 

Very few students with average prior attainment of grade 7 or more followed tech level programmes (so caution should be taken interpreting the year-on-year decreases in retention since 2018/19).

Supporting retention measures and prior attainment

Retained and assessed

Students with the lowest prior attainment saw the biggest increases between 2018/19 and 2020/21. The largest increases in the retained and assessed rates were for applied general (9.7ppts) and tech level (12.5ppts). The A level increase was 8.5ppts, however most of the A level increase occurred between 2019/20 and 2020/21. 

Returned and retained for a second year

At A level the returned and retained rate has increased by 20.5ppts (from 51.1% to 71.7%) over the two-year period for those with the lowest prior attainment. This large increase may be partly explained by the recent decoupling of AS level from A level if those with the lower prior attainment were previously more likely to leave their course after sitting AS level examinations in the first year. 

Retention measures by disadvantage status

Headline retention and disadvantage status

The disadvantage gap is consistently wider for A levels than for other level 3 programmes of study. However, having successively narrowed over the last two years (from 6.9ppts in 18/19 to 5.2ppts in 20/21), the A level disadvantage gap is moving closer to those seen for applied general and tech level programmes, where gaps have fluctuated over time, but are broadly in the range of 3-5ppts.

The disadvantage gap for technical certificates has increased. However, as per headline retention, which was stable, this reported increase reflects changes to the trigger rule rather than behaviour.

In addition to prior attainment and disadvantage status reported above, retention data is available in this statistical release by ethnicity, free school meals (FSM) eligibility, first language, gender, and special educational needs (SEN) provision. These data are available via the ‘create your own tables’ tool, and in the underlying data available to download.

Retention measures by disadvantage status in combination with other student characteristics

This year we have introduced a new data file to this statistical release called ‘Retention – student characteristics and disadvantage status’. This data file gives more detail about disadvantaged students by breaking down the disadvantaged status of students by other student characteristics. In breaking down the data in this way we hope to be able to better identify how student characteristics interact. 

To illustrate: breaking ethnicity down by disadvantage status for A level, we can see that disadvantaged students from each major ethnic group have a lower retention rate than their non-disadvantaged peers.  Disadvantaged students from the White ethnic group have the lowest retention rate at 87.0%. This is 7.6ppts lower than their non-disadvantaged peers (94.6%) and is the widest disadvantage gap of any major ethnic group. The smallest disadvantage gap is for students from the Asian or Asian British ethnic group. Here the gap is 2.8ppts. Students from the White ethnic disadvantaged group also have the lowest retention rate in the applied general and technical certificate cohorts, and the second lowest in the tech level cohort .

The combination  of prior attainment and disadvantaged status is also of interest: for A level, in 2020/21 disadvantaged students with the highest prior attainment have a retention rate 1.0ppt lower than their non-disadvantaged peers (97.8% vs. 98.8%). The retention rate for disadvantaged students with the lowest prior attainment is 6.4ppts lower than their non-disadvantaged peers (73.1% vs. 79.5%). Overall, disadvantaged students are less likely to be retained to their end of their course; disadvantaged students with the lowest prior attainment are even less likely to be retained. 

Tables for these and other new breakdowns can be found in the featured tables section of this publication.

Retention measures by institution type

For level 3 programmes there is a consistent pattern where state-funded mainstream schools overall show higher level of student retention, and retained & assessed at A level, but show the lowest level of student retention, and retained & assessed for vocational and technical programmes (compared to sixth form colleges, and ‘Other FE colleges’).

The higher performance of schools in retention measures at A level is consistent with their higher proportion of students with average prior attainment of grade 7 or more than sixth form colleges and Other FE colleges. However Other FE colleges, despite having the highest proportion of students with average prior attainment of below grade 4, had the highest retention rates for applied general programmes.

Changes since 2018/19

Retention within state-funded mainstream schools has increased across all level 3 programmes, where tech level programmes saw the largest increase of 5.4ppts, and A level programmes had the smallest increase of 2.0ppts. Retention for technical certificate programmes fell by 3.1ppts compared to 2018/19, however the retention rate is stable in comparison to last year. When compared to 2018/19, the retained and assessed measure has also risen across all level 3 programmes for state-funded mainstream schools, however technical certificate programmes show a slight drop of -0.8ppts.

Within sixth form colleges and Other FE sector colleges, headline retention rose in comparison to 2018/19 across all level 3 programmes. For technical certificate students, the observed decrease in headline retention may be related to the trigger. 

Both sixth form colleges and Other FE sector colleges across all study programmes saw a rise in the retained and assessed measure when compared to 2018/19.

KS5 Transition Matrices

16 to 18 Transition Matrices

Transition matrices (TM) are a useful tool to help visualise the progression from different groups of attainment at key stage 4 (KS4) to outcomes achieved during 16 to 18 for a range of different subjects. 

Note that the 16 to 18 outcomes here will also be impacted by the different process to award grades in 2021, which is likely to impact the relationship between outcomes and KS4 prior attainment in 2020/21 for subjects.

The TM data and details on how to use them are available for download from the ancillary data section.

Help and support

Methodology

Find out how and why we collect, process and publish these statistics

National statistics

The United Kingdom Statistics Authority designated these statistics as National Statistics in accordance with the Statistics and Registration Service Act 2007 and signifying compliance with the Code of Practice for Statistics.

Designation signifying their compliance with the authority's Code of Practice for Statistics which broadly means these statistics are:

  • managed impartially and objectively in the public interest
  • meet identified user needs
  • produced according to sound methods
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Once designated as National Statistics it's a statutory requirement for statistics to follow and comply with the Code of Practice for Statistics to be observed.

Find out more about the standards we follow to produce these statistics through our Standards for official statistics published by DfE guidance.

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Telephone: Michael Greer
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