It's the combination that counts

22nd February 2008 at 00:00

A study by experienced teachers for the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority finds there is little evidence that some A-levels are less demanding than others. Does that mean there's no such thing as a "soft subject"? Does it mean that the baiting of teachers of newer subjects over the softness of their curricula will be a thing of the past?

Unfortunately, it's not that simple.

The authority's broad conclusion is so hedged around by caveats that those who believe subjects such as media studies and sociology are not sufficiently rigorous have ample ammunition to maintain their claims.

We are told that media studies may be easier than English, but there's no proof. Sociology is found to be potentially demanding, but is let down by a lenient mark scheme. Among the so-called "soft" options, only psychology gets unequivocal backing, as a "technically demanding" subject of a similar standard to biology.

There have been endless debates over the years about the relative difficulty of different subjects. Even among the oldest subjects, the debate goes on. The researchers found that pupils of a given key stage 3 score achieved worse grades in GCSE French than maths. Does that mean that French (and indeed other languages) should be made easier? Language teachers certainly think so, but the exams watchdog disagrees and so do ministers.

In truth, making accurate comparisons between subjects is fiendishly difficult. While it is important that all subjects at GCSE and A-level should be equally rigorous, what matters more is that pupils should not be encouraged to follow course options that could jeopardise their future.

Only last month, the Russell group of 20 leading universities said that too many state school applicants were being refused places because they had taken unsuitable subject combinations. Most teachers would dispute this; they work hard to ensure pupils make the right choices. Indeed, they would probably agree with Chris Woodhead, former chief inspector, that applicants who aspire to a good university place should not take more than one so-called "soft" subject.

But universities admissions tutors should also ask themselves whether they have taken sufficient account of the changing world we live in. Psychology and the media play a huge part in today's society and are subjects deserving of serious study.

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