Subjects key to helping pupils reach the stars
Trial run on new A* grade shows students get them more in some subjects than in others
Students will be much more likely to gain the new A* grade at A-level in some subjects than in others, an analysis of more than 1,000 pupils' results has revealed.
The study was carried out by Farnborough Sixth Form College in Hampshire, where results have been consistently close to the national averages for England.
Students who start A-level courses this September will be the first to gain the A* grade, which will be awarded from 2010. To do so, they must achieve an A grade overall on the course and a mark of at least 90 per cent in the second year of the qualification.
Farnborough, one of the largest sixth forms in Britain, analysed the results of 1,100 students, many of whom took three A-levels.
Overall, 27 per cent of A-level entries at the college were awarded an A grade last year, but just 4 per cent of them would be given an A*; 12 per cent of pupils would achieve at least one A* grade.
These figures are largely in line with predictions made by the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA). But for the first time they highlight the differences between subjects.
Pupils did particularly well in English literature and maths, while only a few gained A* grades in foreign languages, history and some sciences and media studies.
John Guy, Farnborough's principal, said the variations were marked but would not have a significant impact on what pupils choose to study.
"It would be madness to do a subject just to get a high grade," he said. "That is not how students make their decisions. If they want to do a media studies degree, then doing the subject at A-level is sensible. "But if they want to take history at Oxford, media studies probably won't cut much ice."
Imperial College London has said it would introduce its own admissions test because the high number of A grades at A-level had made them "worthless". But if Farnborough's results are representative, only about 1 per cent of state school pupils can expect to get three or more A* grades.
Dr Guy said: "This research shows that A* grades at A-level will provide the discrimination at the very top that is now overdue. They will overcome some of the criticism levelled at A-levels.
"If Imperial College were to ask for two or three A* A-levels, my view is that they would not fill their places. This is a really important development, and I don't think universities are quite ready for it."
Farnborough's results may add to concerns about the gap between state schools and those in the private sector. The QCA predicts that almost a quarter of independent school pupils will get at least one A* grade, compared with just 9 per cent from comprehensive schools.
Farnborough is also carrying out an experiment this year, in conjunction with the OCR exam board, in which around 50 of its brightest A-level students have taken extra papers to simulate the extended questions being introduced from September.
The results will be reviewed by the college and the exam board in order to assess the impact of A* grades further.
Dr Guy said: "We are doing it so staff can be better prepared to teach the more demanding questions right from the beginning of the new A-level courses."
A study published by Durham University this week, based on data from nearly a million exam results, found that A grades in subjects such as physics, chemistry and biology at A-level were a whole grade harder than in drama, sociology or media studies, and three-quarters of a grade harder than in English, RE or business studies.