Poor pupils choosing 'less suitable' A levels for entry to elite universities

Research raises concerns that A-level subject choices may disadvantage bright pupils from poor backgrounds

Martin George

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Pupils who choose A-level law in the hope of studying the subject at university may be unwittingly putting themselves at a disadvantage, new research has found.

The study by Catherine Dilnot, for her doctoral work at the UCL Institute of Education, raises concerns that bright students from poorer backgrounds could be disproportionately affected by such apparently poor subject choices.

Published on the website of the institute’s Centre for Longitudinal Studies today, it analyses information about all 475,000 English students who entered UK universities with three A levels in 2010, 2011 and 2012.

Ms Dilnot found that those taking A levels in subjects such as law, accounting or business were less likely to go on to elite universities than students who took traditional academic subjects such as science, maths, languages, history or geography.

She also found that the proportion of students with a law A level was much higher at further education and sixth form colleges (13.9 per cent and 12.6 per cent respectively) than grammar schools and private schools (1.4 per cent and 0.3 per cent).

She said: “A student who aspires to a career in a professional services firm might easily think that taking an A level in law, accounting or business would be helpful in achieving that goal.  But it may be that choosing these subjects is actually unhelpful in high-status university admission.

“An apparently sensible subject choice for students wishing to prepare for a professional career may, in fact, put them at a disadvantage.”

Sensible choices

The paper acknowledges that no causal links could claimed, but suggests that “doing facilitating subjects, particularly maths, may be a sensible choice of A level for those aspiring to high-ranking universities, even if the content is not required for the intended course. Care should be taken in choosing ‘less suitable’ A levels, even if they seem to relate to the degree course eventually followed”.

Michael Jefferson, a law lecturer at Sheffield University who has also been an admissions tutor at two institutions, said each university differs and students should check their websites carefully.

Speaking in a personal capacity, he said: “Sometimes A-level law does help students, particularly in their first year, as to understanding terminology and basic concepts, but those who have not done law before quickly catch up.

“Those who have not taken law may overtake those who have because those who have may rely on what they have previously covered and may use their A-level textbooks, not undergraduate ones.”

Sir Peter Lampl, chairman of the Sutton Trust and chairman of the Education Endowment Foundation, said its own research had shown that entry into the most selective universities is "often linked to what subjects pupils take at A level", but disadvantaged pupils were "much less likely" to take the subjects they need.

He said: “It’s vital that young people have access to good careers advice so they know which A levels to choose for the particular universities and courses that they are most interested in. They need to know which subjects will increase their chances of getting into a top university, too.”

Education secretary Justine Greening said last month that the government would set out its careers strategy in the autumn.

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Martin George

Martin George

Martin George is a reporter at Tes

Find me on Twitter @geomr

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