A-level results and B-level coverage

Reading newspaper18 August 2011

A-level results are plastered across the front page of online and print media today. "Get all the latest A-level news", "A-level results break records again", "A-level results - live coverage" are some of the headlines.

Media focus on A-level results has escalated in recent years. The research project News Media Depiction of A Level and GCSE Results in 2003, led by Professor Roger Murphy, found that the news coverage is extensive regardless of the pattern of results.

"Such is the prominence given to coverage of the A-Level results that casual observers might not register that, in fact, only a third of pupils in England, Wales and Northern Ireland take the exam," the researchers noted.

After analysing the 2003 media coverage they conclude that A-level results have become "the major diary item in the media's coverage of education in the UK".

The research project was developed as a response to concerns from educationalists, students, journalists and politicians about the poor quality of news coverage of the annual publication of A-Level and GCSE examination results.

The researchers followed coverage throughout August 2003 in national and local radio, TV and newspapers, as well as specialist publications and educational weekly supplements.

Media narratives tend to follow well-described 'templates', such as 'standards are falling', 'students with high grades rejected by Oxbridge', 'percentage pass rates rise again'. And not surprisingly, the favoured angle of opposing viewpoints often leads to "extreme, simplified views taking prominence", according to the research report.

Press coverage of A-level results feeds into a predictable debate on the quality of education and whether standards are improving or slipping. Since the A-level exam is the final school exam it carries a symbolic meaning as a benchmark for educational standards.

GCSE results, in comparison, received much less media attention with 226 news items - compared to the 369 A-level items.

Much of the debate is embedded in wider anxieties over the increasing mass education beyond compulsory school, states the report. "A-level news items often merge into stories about higher education entry patterns, admissions processes and the value of non-traditional degree programmes," the researchers add.

But this pattern of press coverage and debate has proved frustrating. "Educationalists, policymakers and even journalists themselves deride the ‘predictability’ of the annual results debate," concludes the report.