Harder subjects on the rise as pupils go for top universities

Thursday's A-level results will show large increase in students taking maths and sciences

Teenagers are opting in their droves for academic subjects that will gain them places at top universities, this year's A-level results will show.

The results, released on Thursday, will show a major increase in the take-up of core subjects such as maths, physics, chemistry and biology as pupils heed warnings from leading universities that these are the key to them gaining places at universities including Oxford and Cambridge. For some years ministers have been warning against the take-up of what they consider easier subjects such as media studies and argued in favour of a move towards more traditional academic fare.

Andrew Hall, head of the Assessment and Qualifications Alliance (AQA), said: "I think the young people are getting very savvy. Students are thinking with their heads rather than their hearts."

He added: "We have seen an increase over the last three or four years towards the facilitating subjects [the description the Russell Group, which represents most of the top universities in the UK, gives to subjects likely to win students a place at one of its 24 universities]. I think this will continue."

He predicted the rise in take-up of traditional academic subjects could also spread to modern foreign languages after years of decline, with some universities closing courses. The number of pupils taking a language, particularly at GCSE, nosedived after it was made voluntary for 14- to 16-year-olds by Labour almost a decade ago.

This year could also mark a rise in the number of B grades awarded when the results of more than 250,000 students are released.

Mr Hall said A-level B grades had now become more important as a result of the Government allowing universities for the first time to expand their student numbers as long as they recruit candidates with at least an A and two B grades.

"I think students will understand the increased opportunities they will have by getting to a B," Mr Hall added.

He predicted the Government's move could open up more opportunities at top universities for candidates from disadvantaged backgrounds – as growing numbers of Russell Group universities anticipate they will have places on offer through the clearing system as a result of the change. Teachers have always said that disadvantaged pupils are less likely to opt for places at the most selective universities before they have seen their results.

Mr Hall was critical of the practice – exposed by the exams regulator Ofqual last month – of schools putting pupils in for maths GCSEs with multiple exam boards in the hope they would gain a C-grade pass in one and help them secure a good showing in exam league tables.

"It creates income for us that I'd rather not have," he said. "I struggle to see that it is a good thing as a matter of principle. There may be individual students for whom schools are making a judgement that it is a sensible thing to do.

"I'd rather see schools not have to do that to meet an accountability measure, though."

According to Ofqual, 15 per cent of GCSE candidates (90,000) in maths were registered for the exam with more than one board. Ministers are anxious to crack down on the practice with the help of th education standards watchdog Ofsted, which could expose it in official inspection reports.

Mr Hall also revealed that the practice of entering pupils for GCSE exams a year early had spread from maths and English to other subjects in the curriculum. AQA is conducting research to find out how the grades of those who take the exam early compare with those who take it at the traditional age of 16.

In addition, the number of pupils switching to the IGCSE exam – built along the lines of the O-level, with an emphasis on an end-of-course exam rather than coursework – had grown this year, particularly in English.