Official: some A-level subjects are harder than others

A-levels in maths and science are far harder than in subjects like media studies, large-scale research commissioned by the Institute of Physics and the Royal Society has found. The findings put a question mark both over the value of A-level grades and the Ucas points system, which determines university places for thousands of students every year. Ucas gives the same point score for every subject.

An analysis of 250,000 A-level results from 2006 by researchers from Durham University reveals that a pupil would be likely to get a pass two grades higher in "soft" subjects – such as general studies, business studies or even English – than in maths and science.

The researchers conclude that "from a moral perspective, it is clear this is unfair". They warn that scores of students may miss out on university because they have chosen a harder subject.

The study follows years in which experts have disagreed over the relative difficulties of subjects. Ministers are trying to persuade more youngsters to take up "Stem" subjects – science, technology, engineering and maths – at university level to provide the skills the UK needs.

While some universities take note of subjects studied by applicants and even have a list of "soft" subjects which preclude them from entry, many simply say they are looking for youngsters with a minimum Ucas points score.

The study says claims by the Government and the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority that "there is no such thing as an easy or hard A-level are no longer reassuring if they ever were".

The researchers looked at the predicted grades of every pupil for the 2006 age cohort upon their arrival at school, ie a youngster could be predicted as capable of three grade Bs. They then compared that to the grades they achieved in individual subjects and found a pattern emerging of much higher grades in subjects like psychology and media studies than maths and science. The researchers believe their findings explain why fewer pupils take science and maths A-levels than a decade ago – and that schools encourage youngsters to opt for softer subjects so they do well in exam league tables.

Their findings reveal a similar situation at GCSE level.

The researchers say: "Stem subjects are not just more difficult on average than non-science subjects. They are without exception the hardest A-levels."

Professor Michael Reiss, director of education at the Royal Society, said: "The worry is that some students are put off taking maths and science A-levels because it is harder to get a good grade in them. Anything that distracts students from taking these subjects is really bad news."

David Sandford-Smith, head of pre-19 education at the Institute of Physics, called for Ofqual, the new exams regulatory body, to audit A-levels annually to assess differences between subjects.

The hardestCHEMISTRY 0.96PHYSICS 0.95GENSTUDIES 0.87BIOLOGY 0.81MATHS 0.52FRENCH 0.51GERMAN 0.50HISTORY 0.24

The easiestFILM STUDIES -1.79MEDIA -1.00PHOTOGRAPHY -0.82DRAMA -0.70ENG LANG -0.43ENGLISH -0.43ENG LIT -0.30GEOGRAPHY -0.13

HOW THE RESULTS ARE COMPILEDThe Rasch model compares a student's actual grades – how they did in theexams – with the grades their teachers predicted they should be capable of,based on their overall academic ability. As the student's academic abilityremains constant, the difficulty of individual subjects

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
News
election 2015The 10 best quotes of the campaign
News
A caravan being used as a polling station in Ford near Salisbury, during the 2010 election
election 2015The Independent's guide to get you through polling day
News
people
Voices
David Blunkett joins the Labour candidate for Redcar Anna Turley on a campaigning visit last month
voicesWhat I learnt from my years in government, by the former Home Secretary David Blunkett
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA celebration of British elections
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Education

Guru Careers: Solutions Consultant

£30 - 40k (DOE) + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Solutions Consultan...

Guru Careers: Software Developer

£30 - 35k + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Software Developer (JavaS...

Ashdown Group: Systems Engineer - Linux - Central London

£40000 - £48000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Systems Engineer - Linux ...

Ashdown Group: Linux Systems Administrator - Windows, Linux - Central London

£40000 - £50000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Linux Systems Administrat...

Day In a Page

General Election 2015: ‘We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon’, says Ed Balls

'We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon'

In an exclusive interview, Ed Balls says he won't negotiate his first Budget with SNP MPs - even if Labour need their votes to secure its passage
VE Day 70th anniversary: How ordinary Britons celebrated the end of war in Europe

How ordinary Britons celebrated VE Day

Our perception of VE Day usually involves crowds of giddy Britons casting off the shackles of war with gay abandon. The truth was more nuanced
They came in with William Caxton's printing press, but typefaces still matter in the digital age

Typefaces still matter in the digital age

A new typeface once took years to create, now thousands are available at the click of a drop-down menu. So why do most of us still rely on the old classics, asks Meg Carter?
Discovery of 'missing link' between the two main life-forms on Earth could explain evolution of animals, say scientists

'Missing link' between Earth's two life-forms found

New microbial species tells us something about our dark past, say scientists
The Pan Am Experience is a 'flight' back to the 1970s that never takes off - at least, not literally

Pan Am Experience: A 'flight' back to the 70s

Tim Walker checks in and checks out a four-hour journey with a difference
Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics - it's everywhere in the animal world

Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics

Voting, mutual back-scratching, coups and charismatic leaders - it's everywhere in the animal world
Crisp sales are in decline - but this tasty trivia might tempt back the turncoats

Crisp sales are in decline

As a nation we're filling up on popcorn and pitta chips and forsaking their potato-based predecessors
Ronald McDonald the muse? Why Banksy, Ron English and Keith Coventry are lovin' Maccy D's

Ronald McDonald the muse

A new wave of artists is taking inspiration from the fast food chain
13 best picnic blankets

13 best picnic blankets

Dine al fresco without the grass stains and damp bottoms with something from our pick of picnic rugs
Barcelona 3 Bayern Munich 0 player ratings: Lionel Messi scores twice - but does he score highest in our ratings?

Barcelona vs Bayern Munich player ratings

Lionel Messi scores twice - but does he score highest in our ratings?
Martin Guptill: Explosive New Zealand batsman who sets the range for Kiwis' big guns

Explosive batsman who sets the range for Kiwis' big guns

Martin Guptill has smashed early runs for Derbyshire and tells Richard Edwards to expect more from the 'freakish' Brendon McCullum and his buoyant team during their tour of England
General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

On the margins

From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

Why patients must rely less on doctors

Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'