Are there soft options at A-level?

22nd August 2003 at 01:00
Forget maths, students want psychology and law. Is this the new brain drain, and is the grading to blame?

THE question is politically and emotionally loaded.

Vote yes and you line up with the detractors and denigrators: those who stir from hibernation every August, peer myopically out of the murk of the Woodhead tunnel, and dismiss as worthless the outstanding examination success of our young people Vote no and you join the Government spokespersons, huffing and puffing about the supreme rigour which attaches to every detail of the A-level process, and trotting out polysyllabic questions from A-level psychology papers to impress us with their stringency.

Of course, the crucial question is not: are there soft options? Rather it is: are there hard options? The answer to this is unequivocally yes. The statistical evidence is overwhelming.

Not that the statistics which are widely quoted are of any help. It is true that 38.9 per cent of students this year achieved grade A in A-level maths, whereas only 12.4 per cent of students achieved grade A in media studies.

But, of course, we cannot conclude that it is easier to achieve a grade A in maths than in media studies.

Comparing A-level subjects by raw score results is as futile as comparing schools by raw score results. To draw any conclusions, we first need to know something about the profile of the students taking each subject.

Fortunately, the information we need is readily available. The Curriculum, Evaluation and Management Centre run by Carol Fitz-Gibbon in Durham has records compiled over many years that track the progress of individual students from a very large sample of schools. So we can look at students with similar GCSE results and see what grades they went on to achieve in different A-level subjects.

The outcome of this quickly becomes clear. Students with the same GCSE results are likely to achieve widely differing grades in different A-level subjects. Any competent statistical analysis will confirm this.

To illustrate the point, consider those students whose GCSE results place them in the second quartile of those going on to take A-levels. They have a greater than 80 per cent chance of achieving an A-level grade A, B or C in art, English, media studies, RE, sociology or theatre studies. The same group of students has a less than 60 per cent chance of a grade A, B or C in French, German, maths, physics, chemistry or biology. All the research shows a similar ranking of subjects. Our question is answered.

The statistics appear to reinforce the stereotypes. And the statistics matter. Most schools conduct value-added analyses and have access to data of this type. They know that A-level grades are easier to obtain in some subjects than in others. And if schools know, so do their students, almost certainly affecting which subjects are chosen (although it is reassuring to see that psychology and law, widely quoted as growth-area subjects, are both about half way up the difficulty list).

It might be hard to sympathise with moralisers who piously point to the country's need and demand that all A-level students be doused in a cold shower of maths, sciences and languages.

But it is unacceptable that students are driven away from these subjects by a statistical quirk. If we are to encourage maths, science and language students, we must overcome our phobia about "dumbing down". We must make A-level grades in these subjects as accessible as those in media studies, sociology, and, dare I say it, English.

Tony Neal is head of De Aston school in Market Rasen in Lincolnshire

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