Science A-levels tougher than most

16th March 2007 at 00:00
Pupils applying to university could get better grades by opting for easier subjects

SCIENCE SUBJECTS are among the hardest to get good A-level grades in, despite calls to make them more attractive to pupils.

An analysis by Durham university found that chemistry, physics and biology ranked as those subjects in which pupils were least likely to achieve high grades. The hardest subject of all was one often regarded as an easy option - general studies.

The research was based on the GCSE and A-level results of more than 200,000 students. It produced a predicted A-level grade for each subject which would be achieved by a student with an average GCSE grade of B.

Such pupils would be expected to find themselves on the threshold of a C and D grade if they took biology, physics and chemistry, but likely to get a B if they took sociology. Although foreign languages were in the harder half of the listed subjects, they appeared less difficult than ICT and computing, as well as the main sciences. This means schools which discourage pupils from studying "hard" modern languages may be doing them a disservice.

Dr Robert Coe, who directed the research, said some subjects like the sciences were clearly consistently harder.

Students who wanted to enter courses such as chemistry at university might have no choice but to do the subject at A-level.

But those applying for courses with less specific A-level requirements could pick subjects to get them better grades - or lose out by not doing so. "A grade-and-a-half is a big difference, so this is a problem," Dr Coe said.

Science teachers have lobbied for easier exams in their subjects amid concerns that too few study them. Some now argue that the A* grade at A-level, to be introduced next year, must be benchmarked across subjects to give a truer indication of pupils' performance.

The findings will infuriate exam boards, who insist they try to ensure consistency between subjects. John Bell, head of statistics for Cambridge Assessment, said his team's research suggested it was hard to predict subject difficulty. "What is difficult for one person is easy for another,"

he said.

The Qualifications and Curriculum Authority said the Durham analysis identified more questions than answers.

"Many factors could explain why candidates taking some subjects get better results than expected and those taking others do less well," a spokesman said. "How difficult different subjects are is only one of them."

Log-in as an existing print or digital subscriber

Forgotten your subscriber ID?


To access this content and the full TES archive, subscribe now.

View subscriber offers


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar,, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today