LETTER:A-levels: unequal grading or falling standards?

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From Sir Arnold Wolfendale

Sir: Your Education Correspondent, Fran Abrams, in commenting on the continuing fall in the number of A-level physicists and mathematicians, writes that "there are many physicists who can't get jobs, or are stuck in research posts where they don't get paid particularly well"( "Pupils keep an eye on jobs", 17 August).

I think she will find that it is mainly the young research students who "don't get paid particularly well". But they are not alone - the majority of research students in all disciplines are poorly paid, the argument being that they benefit later when they have their Masters or Doctors degrees. It is important to realise that physics and mathematics degrees (and lesser qualifications, too) are a preparation not only for research but can lead to well-paid posts in the financial and other sectors.

The continuing fall in physics and mathematics numbers, albeit at a lower rate, is a worry nevertheless. My own view, a view shared by many, is that it is not the intrinsic difficulty of these subjects that is responsible, but that the subject would appear to be more severely graded. We need a level playing field, so that equally qualified GCSE-level performers do equally well at A-level, on average, whatever their subjects. This clearly has not happened in recent years; many arts candidates do better than the scientists and mathematicians. The remedy is obvious: make grading standards across A-level subjects more equivalent in difficulty.

Yours sincerely,

Arnold Wolfendale


Institute of Physics

London, SW1

18 August