There’s no such thing as a soft A-level

Richard Taylor, University of Leicester

Richard Taylor, University of LeicesterThere was a new take this summer on the annual hand-wringing over whether A-levels are getting easier. Some A-levels headlines claimed, are “soft” and universities and students should shun them. Speaking to the media Universities Minister David Willetts was more nuanced saying that the current system “sends a very bad message to young people by implying that all A-levels have an equal chance of helping them into university” and that the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS) need to “signal the importance of some A Levels more than others”.

Now we need to be careful here. Some A-level subjects are essential for preparing students for certain subjects. An engineer without a strong mathematical background will not fare well. Medicine applicants are well advised to study Chemistry. Perhaps that’s what David Willetts meant? But the issue of pre-requisites is a different one to the issue of some subjects being “soft” or easier than others.

The perennial Aunt Sally in relation to this issue is Media Studies. For some it sums up all that is soft in the academic curriculum. And yet, of the 31,400 A-level sittings this summer for this subject only 12% ended with the achievement of a grade A or A*. The corresponding figure for Mathematics by the way, is 44%. So in what sense is Media Studies an “easier” A-level than Mathematics? Could it be that they are equally challenging in their own ways and this is reflected in the grade profiles achieved by those who sit them?

The media is a multi-million pound creative industry of great value to our country. How could studying it be soft? Some people think Latin is a dead language. Yet studying that is fine. I’m not having a pop at Latin. It’s an important subject intellectually and critical from a linguistic perspective. I’m merely pointing out the double standard.

So if some subjects aren’t really easier, why the debate? Well, here’s my suspicion. UCAS data suggests students who study subjects like media and business studies at university are more likely to be from state schools and lower socio-economic groups, than for other subjects. I don’t have the data for A-level but I suspect the pattern is similar. So I can’t help but think, that the argument about “soft” subjects is really an attempt to articulate a narrative about the merits of different schools. And through that to position certain schools as not serving their young people as well as others.

Others better qualified than me will debate this broader topic at the University’s forthcoming debate on comprehensive education.  But my personal view is, there’s no such thing as a soft A-level.

Richard Taylor is Director of Corporate Affairs at the University of Leicester. The views expressed here are his own and do not necessarily represent those of the University of Leicester


  1. Zapp Brannigan
    Posted 23/09/2011 at 10:40 | Permalink

    This argument is largely moot without the aid of solid statistics concerning the actual A-level scores and socio-economic background of each student. It is therefore merely a battle of oppinion.

    So in the spirit of this debate, here is my opinion. There are such a thing as ‘soft subjects’. And I would extend that opinion to University subjects as well, which inevitably lead on from A levels. I think that soft subjects have arisen as a result of the current state of our education system and economic climate.

    I grew up on a council estate in Telford and simply went to college because there was nothing else to do there. This was true of many of my friends too, who found the prospect of working in Sainsburys for two years worse than doing something they might enjoy. Now, I would like to make the destinction here that soft subjects tend to be enjoyable subjects and in my view are taken by people who generaly don’t have anything better to do. This on the surface my sound like a crass and sweepng generalisation…and without statistics…it is.

    I knew (whether rightly or wrongly) that Universities favoured certain ‘traditional’ subjects and I knew that by taking these subjects I would have a good chance (and plenty of choice) of receiveing a place. So I took 3 solid ‘traditional’ A levels (which were hard work and weren’t always enjoyable) and 2 ‘soft’ AS levels, which I did for fun. I went for this strategy because it meant that I could both enjoy my college life by learning fun and interesting things (in the soft subjects) yet still have the saftey of leaving college with good solid, trusted A levels.

    Many of my friends didn’t share my sense of forward thinking and didn’t know what it was that they wanted to do. They simply went to college to stay with their friends, have a laugh and get paid EMA. Favorite subjects among my friends included; media, film and tv, international politics and buissiness studies. Nuff said.

    My second point about soft subjects is that I feel they are very damaging to our country due to the education system we have in place. Typically, if you want to progress acedemically, you will go to University after college. So, lots of students who took soft subjects at A level now need catering for at University (especially since we are now the paying customers…bums on seats and all that!). Hense, the media studies department gets a shiney new building and the chemistry department gets shut down (flippent? Think again, this is what happened at Aberystwyth University).

    So we have a relationship where lots (I suspect but again…statistics please) of A level students are graduating in soft subjects and then going on to waste yet more of their time and money by doing them at University, which the University has to provide otherwise it doesn’t make its margins. This is at the expense of good, solid subjects which do deserve a University education and are useful to society. Now, if we had a system like Sweden, where they have a huge number of specialised collages for all sorts of useful ‘soft’ subjects like media, then there would be no issue. Universities would remain the domain of traditional subjects and the colleges could cater for the rest. But to my knowledge we don’t, so thats that.

    As I mentioned in the first place, these views are an opinion and are based largely on my own up-bringing and my 5 years of expereince in the University system (which are still on going).


    Chris Williams Reply:

    It is a shame you will not be able to post on this subject in a few years time when you have entered the world of work. Will your friends all be gainfully employed as golfing correspondent, film maker, or continuity announcer whilst you are still searching for that proper job for which you studied so hard. I hope you are all gainfully employed but in the way that there are many more soft courses than hard ones, so there are more soft jobs than hard ones. I met three people with degrees in chemical engineering recently and only one was working as an chemical engineer. One was a patent agent and the other was an IT project manger. Even the engineer was working for a goverment supplier and not private industry. I have had both kinds of careers and enjoyed the soft organisations as much as the hard. Both contributed to society; one by providing goods and the other by providing homes.
    However, I can’t help feeling that the people who worked for Lehman Brothers believed, right to the end, that they were contributing to society when in fact they were destroying it.


  2. Peter Jones
    Posted 17/09/2011 at 09:37 | Permalink

    “An engineer without a strong mathematical background will not fare well.”

    I was an engineer without a strong mathematical background and I fared better than my colleages who were better at maths by becoming a manager and then a director. When engineering contracted in Britain, I had transferrable skills that my colleagues did not. Over my working life I made far more money and enjoyed a wide variety of work whilst they struggled to find work and maintain their salaries.

    It is only with the emergence of derivatives and hedge funds that a degree in maths has lead to a lucrative career in Britain.


  3. Chris Williams
    Posted 08/09/2011 at 20:05 | Permalink

    You have provided the figures that prove the point. “The 31,400 A-level sittings this summer for this subject only 12% ended with the achievement of a grade A or A*. The corresponding figure for Mathematics by the way, is 44%.”

    So in what sense is Media Studies an “easier” A-level than Mathematics? 31,400 chose it and many managed to get into university even though they they got lower than an A. So how many did Mathematics? You did not say, but it is certain that many of those 44% who got A or A* were Chinese students at independent 6th form colleges. The Chinese don’t take Media Studies.

    Have A levels got easier? No longer do you have to study for 3 years and demonstrate your knowledge in 3 x 3 hour papers. Now you take modules, retake them if you wish and have the periodic table provided to you for the exam. It favours girls which has something to do with the improvement in their results in recent years but, of course, there are many other factors. If you get 3 A* grades it still means you are clever and 4 means you are hard working and clever.

    Of course, you could be like Alan Sugar and be as thick as two short planks and make wodges of dosh by selling the punters dodgy electronics. Brains aren’t everything.


    Chris Williams Reply:

    That should have been study for two years.


  4. Posted 08/09/2011 at 19:54 | Permalink

    Double standard indeed


  5. Arthur Dent
    Posted 08/09/2011 at 09:36 | Permalink

    Ah, but you can’t judge how ‘hard’ the subjects are if different groups of students are studying them because you’re not comparing like with like. It’s like saying that Sunday morning footballers are better than Premiership players because they score more goals.

    There could be lots of reasons for the discrepancy. It might be that diligent, hard-working students tend to gravitate towards subjects seen (rightly or wrongly) as challenging, while lazier students choose subjects perceived to be ‘easier’. It may be that the difficult aspects of maths lead schools to encourage submission only from those students they are reasonably sure will pass.

    The nub of this is that in maths, as in other STEM subjects, you are either right or wrong. In ‘soft subjects’ like media studies and english literature, you are simply required to make a case for your argument. That’s what people mean by ‘soft’. A useful experiment would be to give maths and media studies students a crash course in each other’s subject and then let them sit an A-level paper. I know what results I would expect to see…

    Direct comparisons can only be made by examining students who have studied both sorts of subjects. As someone who sat three STEM A-levels (at a comprehensive school) and five years later sat three ‘soft’ A-levels including communication studies and english lit, I can say there’s no comparison. The STEM subjects were vastly harder even though I studied those full time for two years while I sailed through the later ‘soft’ A-levels despite doing them just one evening a week for one year.

    It’s nothing to do with snobbery or elitism. Some academic subjects are just harder than others.


  6. Jackson
    Posted 08/09/2011 at 07:23 | Permalink

    Agreed. But my maths A-level was very, very hard.


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