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Are all A Levels equal?

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Blog - Are all A Levels equal?

Wednesday 30 January 2013

We have known for many years that pass rates in different A Level subjects vary markedly, as do proportions getting the higher grades A*, A and B.  For example, in 2012 the percentage of students gaining A*, A and B grades across a sample of subjects was as follows:

Chemistry        60%

English             48%

Media Studies 41%

French             69%

Geography      58%

Art                   58%

Mathematics   66%

What conclusion can we draw from this?  An initial reaction might be that because more people get high grades in maths than any others in this sample, maths must be easier than the others, and because media studies has the lowest proportion of high grades in this sample, it must be the hardest.  Hopefully your intuition would tell you that that cannot be right.  Apart from anything else all these exams, and the exam boards running them, are supposed to be regulated by a government agency called Ofqual which must ensure that ‘standards’ across all A Levels are comparable, and that there is no such thing as an ‘easy’ A Level or an ‘easy’ exam board.

In fact, one of the main reasons why these figures for high grades are so varied is not because some A Levels are easier or harder than others, but because the subjects attract different kinds of students. Put very crudely, the subjects which are more likely to attract students with a more specialised interest may do better than those which attract students with a broader or less specialised set of interests.  And subjects which have a reputation for being ‘harder’ or requiring some sort of specialised ‘talent’ will probably attract more students who are confident in their ‘ability’ or ‘talent’ in those subjects.  Those students are likely to do better precisely because they have that ‘ability’ or because they have higher confidence levels, and confidence is a very good proxy for ‘ability’.

So we can’t use pass rates to say that some subjects are harder or easier than others.

A couple of years ago the Russell Group of universities published a guide for students on choosing A Levels with a view to moving on later to university.  This year’s version of the guide can be seen on http://www.russellgroup.ac.uk/media/informed-choices/InformedChoices-latest.pdf . The Russell Group introduced for the first time the notion of ‘facilitating subjects’, a list of subjects covering English and maths, all the sciences and languages, history and geography.

It is easy to misread what is being said here about the ‘facilitating subjects’.  At one level the Russell Group appear to be giving higher value to this set of subjects.  But what the booklet actually says is that the subjects have been identified NOT because they are more valuable or harder than others, but because they are ‘more often’ required by universities in their course requirements.  There are several other important points made in the guidance in this connection:

  • other subjects (and it actually names as examples Religious Studies and Economics) are only not in the list because they crop up less frequently as  specific university requirements, either because fewer courses (attracting few students therefore) exist directly relevant to those subjects (the case with religious studies) or because not all schools offer them (the case with economics)
  • there is a wide range of university courses open to students with no specific subject background at A Level, facilitating or otherwise
  • there are other specialist areas, for example art and music, which usually require A Levels in those subjects.  Those subjects are only not ‘facilitating subjects’ because there are smaller numbers going on to take those courses, because they are seen as more specialised.

It is quite understandable that many teachers and committed students of subjects which are not in the facilitating subjects list feel that in some way their area is being undervalued.  This is a real danger and must be guarded against.  Creative subjects, philosophy, religious studies, physical education, product design are just a few important A Level courses which in different ways are either essential to specific higher education and career pathways (and potentially support the economy in the future) or provide outstanding intellectual training, even if they are less widespread than the ‘facilitating subjects’ in actual course requirements.  Moreover, there are many students with strong individual interest and motivation in these subjects, and it is critical that they and their teachers feel their subjects are valued and encouraged. Here at Bennett we are totally committed to doing this.

It seems as if the government has fallen prey to the misunderstanding as well.  In the recent performance tables a new ‘performance indicator’ gives the percentage of students in each school achieving grades AAB in THREE facilitating subjects.  The media then went on, over the weekend, to declare that a whole swathe of schools was ‘letting down able students’ because they scored low figures on this indicator. This is profoundly dangerous, because it is likely to put pressure on schools to increase their percentage by trying to push students exclusively in the direction of facilitating subjects at the expense of these other important courses.  And apart from anything else, the Russell Group never intended students to do ALL facilitating subjects – the aim was simply to point out that those subjects are the most frequently occurring in university offers where specific subjects were named at all.  No university makes offers based on grades in THREE facilitating subjects.

There are many outstanding courses in excellent universities for which a combination involving ONLY facilitating subjects is quite unnecessary.  Indeed, the Prime Minister gained admission to Oxford on the basis of his three A grades from Eton in History, Economics and History of Art.  Only one of these is an officially ‘facilitating subject’. The Prime Minister’s achievements at A Level would therefore not have qualified for inclusion in the new performance indicator described above, but he got a good degree and has done reasonably well since!

All of this presents something of a dilemma for schools guiding students.  No school should  guide students by keeping from them the information the Russell Group have put out.  If there are subjects which do occur more frequently, which there clearly are, and which therefore, to quote the guidance, “give me more options”, we are ethically obliged to tell the students this and invite them to consider this information in making their choices.  However, there is absolutely no question in my view that students should be encouraged, unless it is their bent anyway, to take ONLY ‘facilitating subjects’; neither should they be discouraged from taking other subjects which reflect their specialised interests (art, music, photography, physical education to name just a few examples), or which represent excellent and rigorous intellectual training (philosophy or religious studies for example), or which may complement other subjects, facilitating or otherwise, and be important for the country’s economic future and for the individual’s job prospects (product design, for example).

Getting across simple messages is always easy; getting across more complex messages is always more difficult. This is our challenge as we, like other schools across the country, begin the process of guiding students in their A Level choices.  One of the great beauties of the English A Level system is the almost infinite number of subject combinations which are possible, reflecting a myriad of personal interests and priorities.  The information about facilitating subjects is important and useful, and must be shared and not ignored, but there are many other factors to consider as well, as I hope is clear from these thoughts, and we must guard against crass or simplistic misunderstanding of what is being said. That will serve no-one well, and could lead to more course drop-out and fewer students moving on to successful university careers, which must be a priority for both schools and the country at this time.


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