Official: some A-level subjects are harder than others

Richard Garner
Sunday 23 October 2011 08:14
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A-levels in maths and science are far harder than in subjects like media studies, large-scale research commissioned by the Institute of Physics and the Royal Society has found. The findings put a question mark both over the value of A-level grades and the Ucas points system, which determines university places for thousands of students every year. Ucas gives the same point score for every subject.

An analysis of 250,000 A-level results from 2006 by researchers from Durham University reveals that a pupil would be likely to get a pass two grades higher in "soft" subjects – such as general studies, business studies or even English – than in maths and science.

The researchers conclude that "from a moral perspective, it is clear this is unfair". They warn that scores of students may miss out on university because they have chosen a harder subject.

The study follows years in which experts have disagreed over the relative difficulties of subjects. Ministers are trying to persuade more youngsters to take up "Stem" subjects – science, technology, engineering and maths – at university level to provide the skills the UK needs.

While some universities take note of subjects studied by applicants and even have a list of "soft" subjects which preclude them from entry, many simply say they are looking for youngsters with a minimum Ucas points score.

The study says claims by the Government and the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority that "there is no such thing as an easy or hard A-level are no longer reassuring if they ever were".

The researchers looked at the predicted grades of every pupil for the 2006 age cohort upon their arrival at school, ie a youngster could be predicted as capable of three grade Bs. They then compared that to the grades they achieved in individual subjects and found a pattern emerging of much higher grades in subjects like psychology and media studies than maths and science. The researchers believe their findings explain why fewer pupils take science and maths A-levels than a decade ago – and that schools encourage youngsters to opt for softer subjects so they do well in exam league tables.

Their findings reveal a similar situation at GCSE level.

The researchers say: "Stem subjects are not just more difficult on average than non-science subjects. They are without exception the hardest A-levels."

Professor Michael Reiss, director of education at the Royal Society, said: "The worry is that some students are put off taking maths and science A-levels because it is harder to get a good grade in them. Anything that distracts students from taking these subjects is really bad news."

David Sandford-Smith, head of pre-19 education at the Institute of Physics, called for Ofqual, the new exams regulatory body, to audit A-levels annually to assess differences between subjects.

The hardestCHEMISTRY 0.96PHYSICS 0.95GENSTUDIES 0.87BIOLOGY 0.81MATHS 0.52FRENCH 0.51GERMAN 0.50HISTORY 0.24

The easiestFILM STUDIES -1.79MEDIA -1.00PHOTOGRAPHY -0.82DRAMA -0.70ENG LANG -0.43ENGLISH -0.43ENG LIT -0.30GEOGRAPHY -0.13

HOW THE RESULTS ARE COMPILEDThe Rasch model compares a student's actual grades – how they did in theexams – with the grades their teachers predicted they should be capable of,based on their overall academic ability. As the student's academic abilityremains constant, the difficulty of individual subjects

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