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Arts GCSE entries stable but not recovering after years of falling numbers, while A Level entries continue to decline

2020 is an extraordinary year; the exam series was cancelled in March and a U-turn on how grades have been awarded took place four days after A Level grades were announced, and three days before GCSE grades were announced. However, the data from 2020 still enables us to monitor results in terms of arts entries.

-37% decline in arts GCSE entries 2010 to 2020
+1% increase in arts GCSE entries 2019 to 2020, +3.1% increase in GCSE Cohort number
-30% decline in arts A Level entries 2010 to 2020, -2% decline 2019-2020

Results out today from Ofqual show that between 2010 to 2020 in England there was a decline of -37% in the number of arts* GCSE entries, from 673,739 in 2010 to 424,528 in 2020, but that since last year, and with an increase in cohort of 3.1%, entries seem to have reached a floor with no significant change in entries 2019 to 2020.

The new normal is that fewer arts GCSEs are studied across England’s schools than a decade ago.

2020 arrangements for GCSEs and A Levels

On 18 March 2020 the Secretary of State for Education announced that the summer 2020 GCSE, AS and A level exam series would be cancelled due to Covid-19. Instead it was decided that teachers would submit grades, and as of the decision on 17 August these are the grades students have been awarded.

Has the cancelling of exams impacted on the number of GCSE and A Level entries?

We believe that the cancelling of exams announced on 18 March will not have had an impact on the numbers of students entered for GCSEs and A Levels.

Schools had to submit the final numbers of GCSE and A Level entries by 21 February, and as Ofsted highlighted in the June analysis of entries: ‘late entries were only permitted subject to circumstances where errors meant candidates were not entered or other exceptional circumstances.’ Ofqual also ‘requires exam boards to issue results only to those students who were entered for exams this year before the deadline of 21 February.’

Terminal exams: assessing students’ ability to take an exam in a subject, rather than their ability in a subject

Going with teacher-assessed grades has the advantage of focusing on student ability in a subject, rather than their ability to take a terminal exam in a subject, especially as the new GCSEs introduced from 2015 were mostly terminal exams without coursework. There is evidence however that teachers can under-estimate the ability of students from disadvantaged backgrounds, or minority groups.

GCSE Cohort numbers

The change of +1% in arts entries is set against an increase from 2019 to 2020 in the number of students in year 11 (the year students take GCSEs) of +3.1%.

Because of a change in how the Department for Education is sharing data on pupil numbers we cannot calculate the change in cohort since 2010. Last year the change 2010 to 2019 was -6.2%.

Cohort numbers are taken from the Department for Education Schools, Pupils and their characteristics statistics.

GCSE Arts Entries 2010 to 2020

Results from the Joint Council for Qualifications and Ofqual show that between 2010 to 2020 in England there was a decline of -37% in the number of arts* GCSE entries, from 673,739 in 2010 to 424,528 in 2020.

Between 2019 and 2020 there was an increase of +1% in arts GCSE entries, although the number of pupils taking GCSEs has increased by 3.1%.

England only results201020192020% change 2010 to 2020% change 2019 to 2020
Art and Design subjects17250418220419040010%4%
Dance (AQA results only)1588494189130-43%-3%
Design and Technology2704018990388872-67%-1%
Media/Film/TV Studies638083643734657-46%-5%
Performing/expressive arts2350592738996-62%-3%

 A Level Arts entries 2010 to 2020

Since 2010 A Level arts entries have fallen -30% and in the last year overall entries have declined by -2%.

A Level arts entries continue to decline, but without the sharp drops of previous years, and Art & Design and Performing/expressive arts entries rose by +1%. Again we are seeing a new normal where subject numbers are not recovering from the declines of the last decade, but are not continuing to drop significantly.

The exception this year is Drama which has seen a -6% decline in entries. For many arts subjects if students have not studied the subject at GCSE they cannot progress on to study it at A Level, so the declines in GCSE entries impact on A Level entries.

England only results201020192020% change 2010 to 2020% change 2019 to 2020
Art and Design subjects425773921938907-9%-1%
Design and Technology165199,2319,167-45%-1%
Media/Film/TV studies310321976519508-37%-1%
Performing/expressive arts36661,0501,060-71%1%

All GCSE and A Level entry numbers are from the Joint Council for Qualifications (JCQ) annual results tables and for 2020 for the Ofqual JCQ published numbers.

*We define arts subjects as Art and Design, Dance, Design and Technology, Drama, Media/Film/TV Studies, Music and Performing/expressive arts.

**Dance GCSE and A Level numbers are from the examining board AQA and are for all of the UK. JCQ only reports Dance GCSE numbers within the PE results.

Sam Cairns, Co-Director, Cultural Learning Alliance