Are some A-level subjects better than others?

In an article in the Telegraph, 23/03/13, Nick Morrison looks at A-level choices and whether some subjects are better than others.

Choosing A-levels should be relatively straightforward. In an ideal world, students would simply pick the subjects they most enjoy and where their abilities lie. But, as thousands of Year 11 students are finding as they make their selections around about now, the reality is not so clear-cut. On top of their own interests and aptitudes, they also have to take into consideration two other key factors: whether they are more likely to get a higher grade in some subjects than in others, and whether some subjects are viewed more favourably than others. In short, are some A-levels “better” than others?

The question of whether some subjects are harder is a controversial one. On a superficial level, the proportion of students who gain top grades varies widely. While 27 per cent of candidates in history got an A or A* grade last year, for example, in French it was 39 per cent.

Ofqual, the exams regulator, says differences in student ability, the demands of each subject and the way they are assessed makes comparisons between subjects difficult. Further maths, for example, is considered to be the hardest A-level of all, yet 57 per cent of all grades are A or A*, reflecting the higher-than-average ability of those who take it. All A-levels have to meet assessment criteria to make sure they are “fit for purpose”, Ofqual insists.

Research by academics at Durham University, however, suggests that there are some real discrepancies. By comparing A-level results between subjects, the researchers found that it appeared to be harder to get higher grades in maths, the sciences and modern languages, for example, than in business studies, drama and English.

The findings, which were published in 2008 and updated with similar results three years later, showed remarkable consistency in the differences between subjects over time, according to Robert Coe, professor of education at Durham and lead researcher on the study. “However you see it, it amounts to saying that they’re not all the same, so if you treat them interchangeably you’re going to make mistakes,” he says.

These results tally with the experience of many in schools. John Newton, headmaster of Taunton School, an independent school in Somerset, says modern foreign languages in particular have a reputation for being “tough” at A-level. “There are certain subjects you can identify as being rigorous,” he adds. “It is the sheer body of knowledge that comes under their embrace, and the complexity of that knowledge.

“There are some which are less tough, although they are still challenging and a very good preparation for life, but they don’t necessarily generate the same sort of intellectual firepower.”

But one possible consequence of this disparity is to put students off subjects perceived as harder. The Advisory Committee on Mathematics Education, a group of experts who have come together to promote the subject, is concerned that only students who get A and A* at GCSE are being encouraged to take maths at A-level, according to its chair, Prof Stephen Sparks.

“The evidence does reflect the advice schools sometimes give to students, and the perception that mathematics and sciences are harder,” he says.

This may be compounded by the effect of league tables on schools, which provide an incentive to encourage students to take subjects where they are likely to get higher grades, adds Coe. And if universities make offers conditional on certain grades regardless of subject, then taking those where it is easier to get a higher grade seems a logical step.

“It is a sensible strategy,” Coe agrees. “Why would you do a hard subject like maths or science or a language when you could do an easier subject?”

John Norris, director of sixth form at Hinchingbrooke School in Huntingdon, Cambridgeshire, acknowledges the temptation. “Schools are under enormous political pressure to improve their results,” he says. “If I funnelled my students into particular subjects I could improve their results in a year.”

But this is where another factor enters the equation: whether all subjects are given equal weight by universities. For years, parents and teachers have suspected some universities of operating unofficial “blacklists” of subjects that are not considered suitable preparation for a degree course. To try to bring some transparency to the system, in 2011 the Russell Group of 24 leading universities published a list of what it called “facilitating” subjects that provide a good preparation for a wide range of degree courses. These are maths and further maths, the sciences, languages, English literature, geography and history.

In its “Informed Choices” document offering advice on A-level combinations (, the group emphasises that students can still get into one of its universities if they choose other subjects, but that it can be a good idea to take at least one from the list. “It’s a good rule of thumb that taking one or two facilitating subjects will leave a wider range of degree courses and career options open to you,” says the group’s director general, Dr Wendy Piatt.

Two institutions, the London School of Economics (LSE) and Trinity College, Cambridge, go further and publish lists of subjects they view less favourably, “non-preferred” in the case of LSE, or “suitable only as fourth subjects” at Trinity. Both lists feature accounting, music technology and sports studies, among others. Other universities publish requirements for individual courses.

Dr Mike Sewell, director of admissions for the Cambridge colleges, says it is not that some subjects have greater academic worth than others, but that some are a better grounding for the university’s courses. Subjects where group work or practical skills form a significant component of the final mark are less suitable, although they are not altogether ruled out.

“Our advice is to ensure that among their three or four A-levels they are doing no more than one of these other subjects,” he adds.

This allows students to pursue an interest in a subject even if it is not as well regarded as some others, says Norris. “It doesn’t necessarily preclude a student from dipping their toe in the water, as long as their whole profile is not doing the so-called 'soft subjects’,” he adds.

Students who are thinking of going on to university should make sure they do their research before picking their subjects, says Chris Ramsey, headmaster of The King’s School, Chester. Where students know what they want to do, the choice may be relatively straightforward, but where they do not it is best to keep their options open. “It is a good idea to pick some subjects from the [Russell Group] list, that makes it possible to be flexible,” he adds.

Mike Griffiths, head teacher of Northampton School for Boys and president of the Association of School and College Leaders, takes issue with the content of the Russell Group list, but welcomes greater openness around what universities want. But, he warns, while universities may not discriminate between subjects that appear on the same list, students who try to play the system may come a cropper. A student is unlikely to get a top grade in a subject that does not interest them, however “soft” it is perceived as being, he says.

“The best option is to pick fairly secure subjects that people know are well-regarded by universities, but not to the exclusion of everything else,” he adds. “It is a balancing act between what you are interested in and how it is going to lead to the next thing.”

Click here to see the lists of non-preferred A-level subjects for LSE and subjects suitable only as fourth subjects for Trinity College, Cambridge.

By Nick Morrison, Telegraph. Click here to read the article © The Telegraph.