Soft A-levels? Now that's a hard one

22nd February 2008 at 00:00

Media studies may be easier than English, but we can't prove it, says exams regulator

There is little evidence that so-called "soft" A-level subjects such as psychology, sociology and media studies are any easier than their more traditional counterparts.

A study by the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA), published today, fails to provide a definitive answer to long-standing staffroom disputes over whose subject is most difficult. However, it does raise the possibility that media studies may be easier than English and history, but can offer no proof.

The exams regulator also sparked an outcry from languages teachers this week after rejecting a call to make their GCSEs easier.

The QCA reached its conclusions on the non-existence of "soft A-level options" after conducting four studies over four years. It convened groups of teachers with experience of teaching more than one subject, and judgements were reached on the relative difficulty of GCSE and A-level question papers and syllabuses. The quality of pupils' work was also taken into consideration.

The study found that:

- Psychology A-level was "technically demanding" and of a very similar standard to biology.

- The standard of work by A-level media studies students at A and E grades was slightly worse than that of English and history candidates. But the study did not have access to pupils' media studies coursework, which made up 40 per cent of the marks, so it was impossible to be definitive overall.

- Sociology A-level was found to be potentially demanding because of the need to ground judgements in complex academic theory. But, in practice, a "lenient" mark scheme meant that candidates could do well by simply using common sense.

The report said: "There was little evidence that the A-level subjects sometimes described as `soft' were any less demanding than their more established counterparts."

Robert Coe, of Durham University, who has produced rankings of the relative difficulty of A-level subjects based on statistical comparisons, described the analysis as "unconvincing". He said: "This is interesting research, but it is not a definitive answer to this question."

But the teachers did appear to reach a consensus that history exams were harder than geography at both GCSE and A-level. Geography exams mainly consisted of short-answer questions, while history focused largely on essay writing, which is generally more difficult.

The authority's study, the first of its kind, will have no immediate impact. There is no plan to change any syllabuses, questions or grading decisions on the basis of it.

But Ofqual, the regulatory body that begins work in April, is likely to carry out further studies.

In separate research, the QCA compared pupils' GCSE languages and maths performances with their key stage 3 scores two years earlier.

This was prompted by Lord Dearing's call for an investigation into the difficulty of languages, following low take-up in recent years.

The exams watchdog found that pupils with a given KS3 score did worse in languages than in maths at GCSE, a finding which supports claims that languages are harder.

If GCSE grades were adjusted accordingly, French and German pass rates would rise, while those in "easier" English and art would fall.

Both the Association for Language Learning and the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) said the figures showed language exams should be made easier. But the authority rejected this move, saying that it would lead to accusations of dumbing down.

A system in which GCSE grades took into account pupils' KS3 scores, or "aptitude", rather than their actual achievements at 16, would also be a "major threat to public confidence" in exams, it said.

John Dunford, general secretary of the ASCL, described the authority's lack of action on languages as "extremely disappointing".

Leading article, page 28


- There is little evidence that psychology and sociology A-levels are easier than biology, or that media studies is easier than English.

- Geography GCSEs and A-levels offer greater breadth of study than history, and history questions tend to be more predictable. But history has more essays, making its exams more demanding overall.

- The content of chemistry GCSEs and A-levels is harder than physics and biology, but grading standards are similar for all three.

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