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Choosing A Level Subjects


Tis the season to be merry.


Many Year 11 students however, in between revising for GCSE mock examinations, catching up on sleep and refining their list of preferred presents, will be thinking about their A level choices for the next academic year

(http://university.which.co.uk/advice/a-level-choices/six-things-you-need-to-know-before-making-your-a-level-choices).  Gone are the days when students had the luxury of simply picking the subjects in which they were most interested.  The need to maximise the chances of obtaining entry into a top university and to fulfil the subject demands of a particular course, which may lead to profitable employment, bring the pressures of utility to the choice.  All this is in addition to the long-standing and unhelpful temptations to align your choices with those of friends and to choose subjects taught by your favourite teachers (who may not end up teaching you in any case).  The uncertainty of whether success and enjoyment at GCSE will continue for two long years at A level also looms, particularly for subjects begun new in the Sixth Form such as Economics or Psychology.


Fewer subjects now seem to be required at A level for particular degree courses although Chemistry and usually Biology will always be demanded by Medicine courses and Mathematics is essential for many courses in Engineering, Physical Science (and Mathematics). Usually a traditional subject at university requires the equivalent subject at A level but the reverse is true for subjects such as Law.  Clearly researching this topic thoroughly is very important and the UCAS website is invaluable here (www.ucas.com).  The Russell Group universities, comprising the top 24 UK research intensive universities, cling to the notion of ‘facilitating subjects’, urging potential applicants to take at least 2 subjects from this list: Biology, Chemistry, Physics, Mathematics, Further Mathematics, Geography, History, English Literature and Modern and Classical Languages (http://www.russellgroup.ac.uk/for-students/school-and-college-in-the-uk/subject-choices-at-school-and-college/).  Whilst I don’t doubt that this is good advice there are some notable omissions such as Economics and a (seemingly deliberate) absence of any subjects which include much coursework.  One might argue that the tenacity and time management required to complete an A level in Design & Technology, Music, Art, Theatre Studies and so on would be essential for the style of independent learning required at university.  In fact there is compelling evidence that the Russell group universities themselves ignore their own advice in the increasingly brutal competition between universities for top students (https://www.lkmco.org/what-a-level-subjects-do-russell-group-universities-prefer/) and simply offer places to anyone who seems likely to gain at least 3 A grades (or even ABB) almost regardless of subjects.


Not all A level subjects are of the same difficulty which further complicates the implementation of a standard offer. Extensive research based on examining how students with similar GCSE results fare 2 years later when they achieve A level grades in different subjects leads to some striking results (https://www.dur.ac.uk/news/newsitem/?itemno=6687).  Subjects such as Mathematics, Physics, Chemistry, Biology are significantly harder than average, closely followed by Modern Foreign languages.  (Interestingly the variations in difficulty between subjects at GCSE seem to be much smaller.)  No-one quite knows what to do about this; many worry that students are put off the ‘harder’ subjects which are exactly those desperately needed by employers.  Artificially adjusting the grades (as in Australia) is tempting but would destroy comparability with previous years.  In any case one has to wonder whether comparing Physics with Art is really helpful given the entirely different skills assessed. 


Predictably the government is keen to generate fresh ways of measuring the achievements of schools and intends to record the percentage of students gaining at least ABB in the facilitating subjects listed above. Annoyingly this will mean that even the most remarkable achievements of students taking non-facilitating subjects will contribute not a jot to the school’s measured success. 


At Birkdale we offer students a free choice of 29 A Level subjects with most choosing to begin with the study of 4 subjects, despite the move towards linear A levels and a focus on 3 A level grades from the universities. Students can then drop their weakest subject when they have sufficient familiarity with A level study to make an informed choice.  Mathematics, Chemistry, Biology, Physics, Psychology and Economics tend to dominate the popularity stakes but I am delighted that we are able to sustain such a rich diversity of subjects with numbers of students selecting languages or music still healthy.  This surely makes the Sixth Form community more interesting and hopefully many students are genuinely choosing subjects that really interest them.  Independent schools now help to sustain some subjects at university: only 14% of Sixth Form students are educated in independent schools but 25% of all students entered for A levels in Modern Foreign Languages in 2015 were educated independently (http://ie-today.co.uk/Article/a-quarter-of-language-a-level-entries-come-from-privates).


Happy Christmas.

Children's Hospital Charity