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Where have all the scientists gone?

Heads say that teenagers are abandoning economically vital disciplines such as physics for 'easier' options such as psychology, reports Warwick Mansell.

STUDENTS are abandoning language and science A-levels in favour of "easier" non-traditional subjects such as psychology and media studies, the annual exam figures revealed this week.

The A-level results are the 21st consecutive annual rise in the pass rate.

They also underlined a trend that one union said stood to deprive the country of expertise in the very subjects where it was most needed (see tables, oppposite).

The Secondary Heads Association said the statistics undermined claims that all A-levels are equally difficult. It wants the issue of inconsistent standards across subjects addressed in Mike Tomlinson's inquiry into the future of secondary qualifications.

John Dunford, SHA general secretary, cited evidence from Carol Fitz-Gibbon at Durham university which showed that maths, physics, chemistry and languages were among the hardest subjects; "easier" were psychology, media studies and religious education.

Mr Dunford said: "The country desperately needs more scientists and modern linguists. What we are producing is a nation of psychologists and media students."

The call came as the exam boards said students could be confident in the reliability of grades, following changes implemented after last year's outcry over last-minute changes to grade boundaries.

While the overall number of A-level entries surged by 7 per cent this year, there were falls in the numbers taking French (by 0.5 per cent), German (0.9), physics (3), chemistry (1.5) and biology (0.8).

At AS-level, the trend was even more dramatic for languages, with a 9 per cent drop in entries for German and 3 per cent for French.

By contrast, the numbers for psychology jumped by 21.2 per cent, making it the third most popular subject. Law rose by 21 per cent, media and business studies by 20 per cent and music by 19 per cent.

The number taking French has fallen 15 per cent since 2000 and German 20 per cent. All three sciences have also lost large numbers of students in recent years. Linda Parker, director of the Association for Language Learning, said heads were partly to blame for steering students away from languages fearing poorer grades would drag them down league tables.

But Ken Boston, chief executive of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, said: "There is no such thing as an easy A-level. Standards are maintained year after year in all subjects."

Diana Dwyer, treasurer of the Association for the Teaching of Psychology, said: "There is no evidence that psychology is an easy option. It should not be lumped with media studies."

The statistics will fuel the debate about the future of A-levels, coming in the week that the Government was forced to defend the GCSE after Dr Boston said schools could skip it if they wanted to.

The overall rise in the A-level pass rate to 95.4 per cent was smaller than last year's 4.5 percentage points jump. The proportion of A grades rose from 20.7 to 21.6 per cent, prompting Conservatives to call for exams to be made harder.

At AS-level, the pass rate improved by only 0.2 percentage points, while the proportion getting A grades fell by 0.6 points.

Girls continued to increase their lead over boys. At A-level, 22.5 per cent of girls got As, compared with 20 per cent of boys. There were also many more entries from girls, despite boys outnumbering them in the general population.

The Government's attempt to stretch bright students by introducing an Advanced Extension Award last year has still failed to take off. Numbers sitting this rose from only 6,841 to 7,230 this year.

Mike Tomlinson, the former chief inspector, who acted as an independent observer of boards' grade-setting meetings this year, said candidates could be confident in the process. Heads told The TES that the process appeared to have gone more smoothly than last year.

* Almost a third of 18-year-olds would prefer to get their A-level results by text message, says a survey by text message firm Freever.

Leader, 12


* Only one pupil in 30 sat A-levels when the exam was introduced in 1951.

* Since then the number of separate subject entries has risen from 103,000 to 750,537.

* It costs the state nearly pound;3,000 for a pupil to take three A-levels.

* More than 100,000 pupils had grades reviewed last year after a controversy over changing grade boundaries.

* After the review, fewer than 2,000 candidates got better results.

* In February, Coventry university researchers found A-level exams induce suicidal thoughts in 8 per cent of students.

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