The first cohort of the new A-levels in England received results along with an endorsement for practical work

Students celebrating exam results

Source: oliveromg /

This year, chemistry has overtaken history to take 4th place in the most popular A-level subjects.

The results are receiving extra scrutiny this year as these are the first results since reforms in 2015 of 13 A-level subjects, including chemistry. The reformed A-level course is now linear with exams at the end of two years.

Practical endorsement

Students in England also received an endorsement for practical skills for science subjects alongside their A-level grade for the first time. Practical work no longer counts towards grades.

To gain their endorsement, students had to complete at least twelve experiments over two years that were assessed by teachers according to common criteria across exam boards.

Ofqual reports a 99.1% pass rate for practical endorsements across the sciences in England. Most students were expected to achieve the endorsement given the time available to complete the practical work.

‘This suggests that the majority of students are gaining a broad range of practical experience at A-level, as was intended by these reforms, and that’s good to see’, says Danièle Gibney, programme manager for curriculum, qualifications and assessment at the Royal Society of Chemistry. ‘However, we want to understand more about what effect these changes have had on the overall level of practical skill achieved by students progressing to undergraduate studies, and we are working with higher education providers to monitor this.’

Practical competence has been assessed in the final examinations through questions that probe a student’s knowledge and understanding of practical techniques.

Danièle adds, ‘the single pass grade means there is no particular recognition for students developing an excellent standard of practical work during their A-level studies’.

‘The hardest A-levels I’ve taught’

The percentage of students receiving an A* grade for chemistry is up since last year, reflecting a trend across all subjects, but there was a small drop in the the overall proportion of A* and A grades for chemistry from 31.9% to 31.7%.

Kristy Turner, a school teacher fellow at Bolton School, felt the exams were tough for students, with boundaries for grades B and below lower than previous years, at least for AQA, the exam specification she teaches. ‘These are the hardest A-levels I’ve ever taught, and I’ve been teaching 12 years’, she says.

She feels the changes in grade boundaries reflect that performance has been pegged to previous years, while the exams are significantly harder. ‘There is some recall, but there is also a significant amount of problem solving’.

Maths questions in the chemistry exam ‘drilled down to a fundamental understanding of the concept’ rather than testing the arithmetic. Kristy adds, ‘The maths isn’t harder, but the strategy you need to approach maths questions is.’

Accuracy of language was important this year. Not because exams required a ‘mark scheme phrase’ answer, but because accurate language is also correct chemistry. ‘It’s about knowing the chemistry really well and articulating it’, Kristy says.

Emerging differences around the nations

Although A-level entries for chemistry look healthy when looking at the combined figures for the nations who use these qualifications, the picture is different when looking at the nations individually.

In England entries were 1.7% up against a decrease of 0.6% for all subjects. In Wales, entries for chemistry decreased by 5.8%, but this is against an overall fall in entries of 6.3%.

However, in Northern Ireland, entries for chemistry were down 6.5%, while the total A-level entries saw a smaller fall of 3.6%. This is concerning as the uptake of chemistry A-level was already lower in Northern Ireland than in England and Wales.