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Taking the easy option?

Emma Burstall and Mike Prestage ask exam candidates in Staffordshire and Swansea why they make the A-level choices they do are they pushed by schools and colleges eager for high pass rates?

Last year, Government exams advisers reported that A-level students got worse results in science, maths and foreign languages than in arts subjects. As speculation continues that schools are increasingly encouraging students to take subjects where the pass rate is highest, the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority (SCAA) and OFSTED have been asked by Gillian Shephard to investigate grade consistency and whether science and maths A-level courses are more difficult than English.

Do A-level pupils pick arts subjects because they think they are easier and they will get better exam results, or do they simply choose the ones they like best?

When lower sixth-formers from two comprehensives were asked their views, most said they picked subjects they liked, were best at, and that they thought would stand them in good stead for the future.

However, some admit to steering clear of science, maths or modern language courses because they fear they will be too hard.

Most lower sixth-form pupils at Westwood High School, a 796-pupil, co-educational comprehensive in the market town of Leek, Staffordshire, were looking towards possible careers when making their A-level choices. Many, however, say maths and the sciences in particular are harder, although this doesn't usually prevent them taking these subjects.

Joanne Roberts, 16 (English, classics, art) chose classics and art because she enjoys them. "As I want to go to university and become a teacher, English seemed a good all-rounder to have as well."

Matthew Statham, 16 (maths, physics, chemistry, AS-level philosophy) says: "Everyone said I'd have to do maths if I wanted to take physics and become an engineer. People in the year above told me sciences were really hard, but it didn't put me off."

However, Daniel Smith, 16 (maths, physics, business studies, AS media studies) admits the combination of two sciences and maths seemed too daunting. "Maths and physics complement each other and they're what I need to do engineering at university. Physics is my strongest subject, but I'm not so good at biology and chemistry and thought it would be too hard to do two sciences with maths. "

Sixteen-year-old Emma Baddeley (English, geography, history) says she started doing French instead of geography but dropped it because it was too hard. "I chose the other subjects because I want to do law at university and was told by teachers they would be good choices."

Meanwhile, one student at Hornsey School for Girls, a 1,150-pupil mixed comprehensive in north London where a large majority of pupils speak English as a second language, admits he took arts instead of science subjects because they are easier.

Daniel McBrearty, 16 (English literature, history, politics) says that although he is good at sciences a biology teacher warned him he "couldn't get away with working in the way I had previously, I'd have to pull up my socks, so I decided to do arts subjects instead".

But others picked subjects because they liked them or on the advice of teachers. Iram Malik, 16 (biology, maths, chemistry) says many people warned him he'd chosen the hardest subjects to do well in. "But I like them and want to be a doctor so I decided to have a go."

And Gesella Ohaka, 16 (physics, chemistry, maths) adds: "Everyone says science courses have been getting progressively harder, but there again you need better arts grades to do arts subjects at university . . . I decided to stick with what I'm best at. I'd like to be an engineer."

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