The study, published by the Engineering Council, says general studies counts for little in the competition for university places. Professor Alan Smithers, co-author of the report, says that the exam which tests students on a range of subjects from foreign languages to science, social sciences and arts, has failed to broaden sixth-form studies.
Despite the rapid growth in the numbers taking the exam since it was first set in 1959 - only maths is more popular - university admissions tutors remain sceptical about it. Many see it as 'not quite a real A-level', the report says. The most sought-after universities and the most popular degree subjects are unlikely to look at it. Usually it can only help to secure a place as a third or fourth A-level.
Schools, too, often fail to take it seriously. In one school visited by the researchers, teachers did not turn up to take the lessons. Another's pupils played Trivial Pursuit to practise for general knowledge questions.
However, the Northern Examinations and Assessment Board, which sets the exam taken by 90 per cent of general studies A-level entrants, denied that it was an easy option and challenged adults to tackle the wide-ranging questions for themselves.
The report by Professor Smithers and Dr Pamela Robinson of Manchester University also says that results are biased against girls and that scientists do better than arts candidates. Unlike other A-level subjects, general studies is a poor indicator of candidates' performance in university finals.
The study was based on observation in 30 schools, interviews with 44 teachers and 300 pupils, analysis of A-level entries, university admissions policies and the A-level and degree results of 2,300 students. Professor Smithers said: 'General studies doesn't help entrants to higher education that much. Since the raison d'etre of A-level is as a stepping stone to higher education, it's paradoxical that so many students go on taking it.'
One admissions tutor at a former polytechnic said: 'General studies is a better indicator of general intelligence than any other subject.' But a more typical remark came from a university science tutor: 'We ignore it.'
Some sixth-formers thought general studies broadened their outlooks, but one said: 'The lessons were compulsory, but the attendance record doesn't bear speaking about. It is another A- level which doesn't need revision.'
Another said: 'Most of the teachers don't turn up on time. We had a couple who didn't turn up at all.'
The examination was the Fifties solution to broadening the sixth-form curriculum, but the report concludes it that 'may no longer be appropriate (if it ever was). By appearing to counteract undue specialisation without in fact so doing, it may be deflecting us from the hard question of do we want more breadth and, if so, of what kind?'
A spokeswoman for the Northern exam board said that any sex bias might be caused by the number of short-answer, multiple- choice questions in which boys traditionally do better than girls.
She questioned the view that it was not recognised by universities. 'For a lot of applicants it tips the balance. Certainly people get into university with two A-levels and general studies. It is not an easy option.'
General Studies, Breadth at A- level by Alan Smithers and Pamela Robinson, published by the Engineering Council.
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