A-levels in traditional foreign languages have suffered a further slump, with the number of people taking German falling so steeply that it has been overtaken by Mandarin.
About 3,000 students sat German A-levels, a drop of 16% on last year and a 45% fall since 2010. French, the most popular modern foreign language, also suffered a steep decline, as part of a shift by students away from humanities towards the stem subjects of science, maths and computing.
The changes were revealed as hundreds of thousands of students received their A-level grades across England, Wales and Northern Ireland, with many waiting to complete university applications in what is proving to be a difficult recruiting period for some institutions.
Exam grades fell in England, as schools and pupils digested the reform in which the qualification was decoupled from the one-year AS-level and grades relied entirely on final exam results at the end of the two-year course.
In some subjects the exam reforms included increasing the complexity of course content. This meant that economics and chemistry, for example, featured more advanced mathematical applications.
A combination of the new exams and a lower-ability cohort led to a general fall in grades for candidates in England, with the proportion of students achieving a C or higher in all subjects falling to 76.8%, the lowest level since 2012.
Last year, when fewer of the new, reformed exams were taken, 79% of girls in England achieved grades C or above. This year the proportion fell back to 78.4%, while the proportion of boys achieving the same results fell by a smaller amount – 0.3%.
The UK government was keen to highlight the continuing rise in the number of students taking sciences, technology, engineering and maths. Chemistry, physics and biology all rose by 3%, while mathematics was up 2.5%.
The number of girls taking sciences and maths continued to rise, with Malvern St James Girls School in Worcestershire celebrating nearly 40% of its pupils going on to read stem subjects at university after strong results.
“The English education system has been pulled through the hedge backwards in terms of what staff and pupils have had to contend with, all in such a short time frame. It has been a herculean task,” said Olivera Raraty, the school’s headteacher.
But the rise in stem subjects caused a drops in participation in humanities including English literature, history and geography, which was down 11%. But modern languages were worst off, with numbers having fallen 15%, compared with 2010.
The decline prompted calls by some school leaders for the reintroduction of compulsory study of foreign languages up to GCSE level, a policy abolished in 2004.
Mark Herbert, the British Council’s director of education and skills, said the decline was a “real concern” and that it remains important for young people to develop language skills.
“Our research shows that Mandarin will be one of the most important languages for the UK’s future prosperity and global standing – but we mustn’t neglect Spanish, French and German, which will still be vital post-Brexit,” Herbert said.
Figures released by Ucas showed that there had been a 2% fall in the number of school-leavers accepting places at university for the first time since tuition fees rose to £9,000 in England in 2012.
Ucas said the decline was largely due to a fall in the number of school-leavers and would have been greater but for a record 27.9% of 18-year-olds in England being accepted on to courses. In Wales 26.3% of young people will be starting an undergraduate course, which also a record.
The decline in recruitment has caused difficulties for lower-tariff institutions, with Ucas figures showing they are losing out to their better-known rivals. While higher-tariff universities, such as those in the Russell group of research universities, have seen acceptances rise by 1%, the lower-tariff universities are down by 3% and are pinning their hopes on a strong clearing performance.
The University of Sheffield, a member of the Russell Group, said it saw strong interest in clearing as soon as its phone lines opened at 7.30am, as well as hundreds of online applications from students looking for places to study computing, economics and politics.
Sheffield said it had 70 call handlers on duty, with 40 staff making offer decisions – an increase of 50% compared with two years ago.
Eddie Playfair, the principal of Newham sixth form college in east London, said: “Most of our students will be getting into the universities they wanted to go to. Clearing is very different to what it used to be like, the quality of the process is very smooth. In the old days, it used to take several days.
“We have been increasing our number of Russell Group students but we don’t fetishise the Russell Group. Wherever our students want to apply to we support them to maximise their chances.”
The reformed A-levels made little difference to results at St Paul’s Girls’ School in London, which traditionally tops league tables. This year 60% of entries achieved an A* or equivalent.
This year was the swansong for general studies, the much-maligned portmanteau A-level that as recently as 2010 had 50,000 entries. The subject is not being offered as a reformed A-level so this year’s 3,400 entries across the UK will be the last to take what was once a staple subject.
Additional reporting by Amy Walker