So, which A-levels are easy?

Some experts argue that humanities subjects such as psychology are easier than maths or science. Are they on to something, or is it simply that some disciplines require a special aptitude? Lucy Hodges reports
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The Independent Online

Are maths and physics A-levels harder than psychology and media studies? The big debate triggered after the publication of A-level results this month shows no sign of abating. For the 22nd year running A-level results are at a record high - the pass rate was 95.4 per cent and 21.6 per cent were A grades.

When John Dunford, general secretary of the Secondary Heads Association, declared that the figures showed "the hidden scandal of A-levels", he had no idea of the furore he had started. "It's a consequence of people perceiving that maths, physics, chemistry and modern foreign languages are harder subjects," he said. "Because most university courses do not require particular subjects, an A or a B in psychology is worth the same. Statistically it's easy to show that psychology is an easier A-level than maths." Since then the leader of the secondary heads has been fending off a torrent of irate e-mails from psychologists and energetic counter-attacking from the Department for Education and Skills (DfES).

Dunford's comments, however, were founded on hard evidence. Research carried out by Professor Carol Fitz-Gibbon and Luke Vincent at Durham University in 1994 showed that certain subjects - maths, foreign languages and the hard sciences - were more difficult or more severely marked than other subjects. These findings were contained in a government-funded report for the old Schools Curriculum Authority and they were checked by Ron, now Lord, Dearing in his report on education for 16- to 19-year-olds. The issue is what inferences you draw from them.

What worries Dunford is that maths and modern languages are subjects that the economy needs yet there is a real crisis in both areas. Fewer students are opting to take single honours maths at university and there is a drop this year in the number of pupils choosing to take AS levels in German and French. "Harder subjects are the subjects that the country most needs people to study," he says.

"Whereas 20 years ago universities did a lot of interviewing and made allowances for students taking harder subjects, now there is less interest. It's just a question now of whether you have two As and a B or two Bs and a C. When teachers sit down with 16-year-olds now they ask what subjects they can get their best grades in. That's where all this comes into play."

What worries Fitz-Gibbon is that schools are being made to look bad if they encourage students to take the "hard" subjects because their exam results aren't as good. "We need appropriate statistical analysis and not raw league tables," she says. "Northern Ireland and Wales have dropped league tables, so why can't we?"

But other experts don't agree. When Dunford made his remarks, the DfES issued questions from psychology exams to show how difficult the subject was. David Miliband, the schools minister, dismissed the comments. "Every A-level subject meets rigorous standards and several international panels have shown this," he said.

Since then other experts have entered the fray. One is Michael Cresswell, director of exams administration at the AQA exam board, who wrote a paper criticising Professor Fitz-Gibbon's research. "To observe that people who do maths seem to perform better only tells you something about who is choosing maths," he says.

Everyone accepts that the brighter students choose to study the "hard" subjects - maths, science and foreign languages - at A-level. That's thought to be why there are more As at maths A-level than in the "easier" subjects. Mr Cresswell's point is that you get answers from the data according to the group that you analyse. If, for example, you looked at the results of boys and girls, you would get findings which might lead you to conclude that one sex was brighter than the other.

"The problem with purely statistical approaches to the issue of comparable examination standards is that they ignore the educational content of the syllabuses and examinations concerned," he says.

Another sceptic, Professor Alan Smithers of Liverpool University, says you cannot infer from the results that some A-levels are softer than others. And although Roger Brown, director of Southampton Institute, believes there is certainly something in what John Dunford says, he adds that it is notoriously difficult to talk about comparable standards in different subjects. "In other words, comparability is almost impossible as between, say, psychology and physics, let alone media studies and mathematics."

John Guy, principal of The Sixth Form College, Farnborough, points out that there are certain things that make some subjects harder and others easier. One is individual aptitude. Those who have a bent for maths or physics can do very well in it. "Ease is in the eye of the beholder," he says. "If you were to make people who were choosing A-level physics take sociology, you would probably find they did as well as the sociologists. But if you made sociologists do physics they would probably fail. It is to do with the nature of the subject."

John Guy also takes issue with Dunford's claim that science and maths graduates are needed for the economy. Many of these graduates go straight into the City, says John Guy. "What we need is more people at technician level."

The debate has stung psychologists into standing up for their subject. According to Angela Clow, professor of psychophysiology at Westminster University, psychology is a tough subject which trains students in research and statistics. Dr Simon Green, head of psychology at Birkbeck College, London agrees. "It is not a sub-counselling course," he explains. "It's much more like a science than a humanities subject."

Whatever the relative merits, Professor Fitz-Gibbon is pleased that we are finally having a debate on the issue. "I'm amazed we didn't have it years ago," she says.