In recent weeks sixth-formers who are told by the Government that an A-level in one subject is just as good as an A-level in any other have been receiving some bad news through the post. Star pupils predicted to get three or more A-grades have found themselves rejected by leading universities, not on their lack of qualifications but because of their subject choices.
Cambridge let the cat out of the bag in the summer of 2006 when it published a list of 20 "soft" A-level subjects it regarded as poor preparation for its courses. The list included media studies, travel and tourism, and film studies. Cambridge was quickly followed by the London School of Economics. Other Russell Group universities, however, have continued to claim on their websites and in their prospectuses that they do not discriminate against certain subjects. But the truth, according to schools, is that the leading universities favour traditional, "hard" A-levels, such as history, physics and Latin.
Most members of the Russell Group say they won't count general studies or critical thinking as an A-level qualification for university entry. But the law department of Lancaster University welcomes it. "I am quite happy to count general studies as one of the three because schools are generally not good at teaching it, so the ones who get the As and Bs are the ones with their eyes and ears open. They're the ones watching documentaries and reading the quality press and that is exactly what we want," says Richard Austen-Baker, the admissions tutor for law.
Lancaster's law department is about to publish the same list as Cambridge. But whereas Cambridge says it will not look at anyone without at least two "hard" A-levels, Lancaster's law department will "look more closely at them and perhaps invite them for interview".
When it comes to August and pupils have missed their A-level scores, however, the ones dropping grades in traditional subjects are more likely to get places than those failing to make the grade in those on the undesirable list.
As a further complication, law A-level is not seen as an advantage for those wanting to study the subject and some universities, such as the LSE, will not accept it.
Alan Bullock, the careers director at Havant Sixth Form College in Hampshire, says teachers and pupils are working in a lot of grey areas. "I've had conversations with people at universities who say in their heart of hearts they would prefer students not to do law A-level, but they don't allow it to influence the selection process," he says. "It's difficult because you don't want to be advising students not to do media studies without cast-iron evidence that it could affect their chances. But you have to stick your neck out and tell them what is being said about certain subjects."
Most badly affected by the lack of clarity are pupils in state schools who believe the Government and its curriculum advisers when they say all A-levels are of equal standard. Independent schools, mindful of the bias against trendy new subjects, have for years advised their high-flyers to play safe. On average, 40 per cent of A-grades in science and modern languages were gained by pupils at private schools which are also much more likely to offer economics, Latin and classical subjects.
Off the record, the headmasters of two independent schools which send large numbers of pupils to Oxbridge, say they don't agree that subjects like psychology and sociology are less demanding. "The view of what Oxford and Cambridge want is driven by snobbery and lack of understanding," says the head of a large boarding school. "It's the 'we didn't do it in our day' approach that makes Oxbridge hostile to new-fangled subjects," says the head of a boys' day school.
The head teachers, who did not want to be named for fear of offending Oxford and Cambridge and harming their pupils' chances, advise students against taking the risk of applying to the most sought-after universities with softer subjects at A-level. Dr Philip Evans, the headmaster of Bedford School and the former chairman of the academic committee of the Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference, says the confusion isn't fair on schools or young people. "We should have an exam system which has credibility so that people are not tempted to make judgements, particularly those built on prejudices," he said.
According to Mike Nicholson, head of admissions at Oxford, pupils in schools without sixth forms are most likely to choose the wrong combinations because their teachers do not have experience of university entrance.
And Professor Alan Smithers, the director of the Centre for Education and Employment Research at Buckingham University, says that state schools must take part of the blame for nudging pupils into "softer" subjects in which, according to research at Durham University, they are more likely to score highly. "In schools under pressure to get scores for league tables a large variety of subjects are offered to suit children of different ability and pupils are allowed to choose freely," he says.
Dave Peters, head of sixth form at Coombe Girls' School, a comprehensive in Kingston upon Thames, Surrey, does not agree. "Pupils are warned against doing subjects that might restrict their choice of university courses but the problem for schools is knowing which ones they are and at which university," he says.
"Universities tend to talk in euphemisms, such as 'untraditional' or 'preferred' and a lot of the information we get is based on anecdotes or the media. I have to be very careful because if I say to the really bright students 'don't do media studies' then the media studies department won't get the candidates for what is a demanding A-level course."
Rebecca Cole, an upper sixth-former at the school, decided late in the day that she wanted to study law and aim for a leading university. At the age of 15 she had wanted to study the subjects in which she was most interested. But at 18 she realised the error of her ways. Her combination of drama, media studies, business studies and psychology ruled her out of some of the most competitive universities which prefer subjects such as history and English literature.
So she dropped drama, in which she had achieved an A-grade at AS-level and took up English literature last autumn. But she was rejected by Manchester and Bristol, despite her work at a law centre and an A-grade for the first part of her English literature course, completed in half the usual time.
She was saved by the LNAT – the admission test for law required by many of the leading universities – in which she achieved high scores. As a result, she has been offered a place at Nottingham. "I don't want to blow my own horn but the LNAT is a really difficult test for the top eight universities and it shows that just because you choose to do the so-called soft subjects it doesn't mean you are any less intellectual," she says. "There is nothing wrong with traditional subjects. I did them at GCSE; but the world is changing and education needs to change with it."
Emily Wheeler, 17, who is taking five AS-levels this summer, has decided to drop drama, which she loves, so she can concentrate on French, history, politics, English literature and critical thinking. "Drama helps you speak publicly and gives you useful communication skills which you would think would be helpful to lawyers but I'm told that if I want to apply for law, universities would prefer French," she says.
Though universities are increasingly willing to give guidance on subject choices, pupils remain confused and disappointed about their options being so limited. "It's difficult choosing your A-level subjects when you are still quite young and all this talk of traditional and non-traditional subjects adds another level of complexity," says Lizzie Faulds, who is taking GCSEs at Coombe this year.
"I'm having to change my plans early in life," she says. "I was going along the road of English, psychology, PE and biology and now I find that some universities see psychology as a soft subject. I have also discovered that the combined English A-level is not seen by some universities as good enough and that they want you to do English literature."
Fed up with the grey areas and the pressure to specialise early, Coombe sixth form has applied to offer the more transparent and wide-ranging International Baccalaureate alongside A-levels from 2009.
Which A-levels should you study?
Hard A-levels, which may help you get into the top universities
A-levels that may be risky
Soft A-levels, which may disqualify you
Art and design
Design and technology
Health and social care
Information and communication technology
Travel and tourism