Page last updated at 21:48 GMT, Friday, 4 July 2008 22:48 UK

What to do about 'easier' exams?

By Mike Baker

Mike Baker

The timing was a bit harsh. Just as students in England, Wales and Northern Ireland were finishing their A-levels, a new study suggested that some subjects are harder than others.

I have not yet dared to show it to my daughter who has just finished working hard for A and AS-levels in English, art, photography and film studies.

According to the report, from Durham University, these are amongst the "easier" subjects.

The study found that the hardest subjects - physics, chemistry and biology - were up to a grade harder than subjects such as drama, sociology and media studies and up to three-quarters of a grade more demanding than English, RE or business studies.

So, as a parent, should I conclude that she made the right choice of subjects, craftily picking those in which she had a better chance of achieving good grades?

Or should I berate her for having chosen "soft options" and warn her that universities will not place much value on her grades when she gets them next month?

Of course, I will do neither of these things. She chose her subjects wisely in view of her ambition: to study art at university.

There would have been no more point in pushing her to take the "harder" science subjects, in which she had no interest, than there would be in persuading someone aspiring to study medicine at university to take media studies, drama and sociology.


The reality is that young people choose subjects mainly on the basis of their aptitude and interest and according to their future education and career needs.

This was highlighted in a recent study into A-level subject choices in England from the assessment agency, Cambridge Assessment.

It asked young people to rank in order of importance their reasons for choosing a particular subject.

Around 80% said interest, enjoyment or career reasons were "very important" factors.

By contrast, only 17% said their perception that a subject was "easy" had been a "very important" reason for choosing it.

Of course, some of these students may have preferred to stress reasons that made them sound serious rather than work-shy, but this was an anonymous survey so there was no need for them to lie about the factors behind their decisions.

So, in the absence of any hard evidence that students are choosing subjects primarily on the basis of their perceived easiness, how should we respond to the Durham study?


The report's authors have given us some guidance, offering three possible policy responses.

The first option is to do nothing. They reject this.

They also reject the second - to make all subjects the same standard - arguing that this would create a number of new problems, including making it impossible to continue to compare standards over time.

Their third, and favoured, option is to change the way A-level grades are used.

This would involve some sort of "conversion rate" with a gearing that would give greater weight to grades in the tougher subjects in league tables and the Ucas (university entrance) points tariff.

This might seem reasonable if there were any hard evidence that schools have been influenced by league tables to persuade students onto "easier" courses.

It would also be reasonable if universities set great store by Ucas tariff points when deciding admissions.

Admissions tutors

However I hope I am right in doubting that schools would persuade students to take drama rather than physics purely to boost their league table position.

If anyone reading this has evidence to the contrary, we would be interested to hear it.

As for Ucas points, these are used mainly as a general guide to applicants. Certainly at the selecting universities, admissions tutors are more interested in subjects and grades than in points.

Admissions tutors want students to have the most appropriate subjects, not just the best grades. Indeed, this was underlined by the Durham study's finding that the toughest subject of all was A-level general studies, a qualification that few universities appear to value.

The Durham study is certainly a valuable addition to our knowledge about exam standards but I am not convinced it offers us any clear answers to the serious problem of why so few young people choose to study sciences.

The solution is, surely, to make the sciences more enjoyable and interesting in school and to make clear to students the rewards these subjects offer in career terms.

Indeed, the biggest concern highlighted by this report is not for those students who are choosing the "harder" subjects but, conversely, for those who are not getting the right parental or school advice about subject choice.

If universities are, as a result of this research, even more likely to regard certain subjects as "easier" then it is vital that students realise this when making their choices.

The real unfairness is not so much that it is easier to gain an A grade in sociology than in physics. These are as different as apples and pears anyway.

But rather it is the sad situation some students find themselves in when, because of a lack of good guidance and advice, they end up with A-levels in subjects that employers or universities do not value.

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