Richard Taylor, University of Leicester
There 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