Why maths A level is the ticket to a top university

In the latest episode of the Podagogy podcast, we talk to researcher Catherine Dilnot about A-level subject choices

maths equations

There’s something special about maths A-level, according to Dr Catherine Dilnot. 

The academic, now a senior lecturer in accounting, finance and economics at Oxford Brookes University, explored the issue of A-level choice for her PhD thesis (published last year), and found that maths A level offered a particular boost when it came to securing a place at a high-ranking institution.

But why? To understand this effect, we need to go back to the roots of her research.

“It was argued, a few years ago, that perhaps the reason why students from less privileged backgrounds weren't getting into the highest status, most prestigious universities was because they didn't have the right subjects in applications,” she explains. 

“Some universities require particular subjects at A level and if you haven't got them, you can't go. But there’s actually not a lot of evidence that people apply with the wrong subjects; I think students do their homework and their advisers do their homework and they do apply with the right subjects.

“What might have happened, though, that we can't observe, is that they've actually changed their minds about what they can apply for, what the sort of university they can apply to, because they’ve realised they haven't got the right subjects.”

Keeping options open

Then there’s the question of what used to be known as the “facilitating subjects”: a list of A levels preferred by the 24 Russell Group universities, largely favouring traditional disciplines such as the sciences, English, history and, of course, maths. 

“They said these were helpful in keeping your options open and getting into Russell Group universities,” Dilnot says.

“The argument went that the more of those you had, the larger number of Russell Group degree courses [would be] open to you.” 

The coalition government then “jumped on the bandwagon”, she continues, introducing a league table measure of how many students received AAB grades in at least two facilitating subjects, thus giving sixth-forms and colleges an incentive to push them further. 

The Russell Group has since rowed back on being “so prescriptive”, Dilnot says, and instead introduced a website called Informed Choices to help students pick the most useful subjects for their future plans.

The magic of maths

But the effect of the facilitating subjects is still significant, Dilnot argues, and this is especially true when it comes to maths.

“I looked at whether students with more facilitating subjects were, on average, at higher-ranked universities," she says. "And even taking into account their prior attainment and the subject that they were doing, I found that facilitating subjects were helpful on average and maths was extra facilitating.

“If you had three facilitating subjects rather than none, you’d be at Bristol rather than Leicester, for example. And with maths, you'd go a little bit further up the rankings. That's even true for students doing arts and humanities, and certainly social sciences.” 

So what is it about the subject that’s affecting university applications? The answer, alas, isn’t clear-cut.

“There could be something about people with maths A level that makes them more aspirational about where they want to go to university,” Dilnot ponders.

“Or it could be that the admissions tutors look at someone with maths and think that's quite impressive. It’s probably some sort of combination of the two, I would guess.”

Counterintuitive choices

Dilnot also explores the confusing issue of A levels that are related to degree subjects but appear to be unhelpful when applying for a place on those degrees – particularly accounting, business and law. 

“My background is in accounting, so I was particularly interested in students who come into these business-related degree disciplines and want a career in those disciplines and have chosen the related A-level subjects,” Dilnot explains.

“For accounting, business and law, very very rarely, if ever, do the universities asked for the related A level. But students from less privileged backgrounds tend to do those, particularly in law and accounting.

“For law [degrees], it turns out to be really counterintuitive. My findings were that whatever you swapped law A level for, whether it was for another facilitating subject or just for any A level, you were on average at a higher-ranking university [to study law].”

The issue is that although universities might not specify required subjects, they nonetheless seem to prefer students to have A levels in particular subjects. 

“There are lots of really popular degree subjects that don't have such requirements,” she says.

“Business would be the classic case where very, very few stipulate particular A levels, and the one or two that do would probably say maths rather than business. But that's quite difficult for someone choosing their A levels to know.”

You can listen to the podcast via the player above, or type "Tes - the education podcast" into your podcast platform (also via Spotify). 

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