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Last Updated: Thursday, 14 August, 2003, 00:47 GMT 01:47 UK
Row erupts over 'easier' subjects claim
By Angela Harrison
BBC News Online education staff

The standards row lives on
Ministers are rejecting claims that the continued rise in the A-level pass-rate is due to pupils choosing "easier subjects".

Head teachers say there is a movement away from subjects seen as harder, like maths, science and foreign languages towards psychology and media studies.

But the government has rejected the claim that such A-levels are an easy option - and has put out some exam questions to try to prove its case.

There has been a big increase in the number of pupils taking psychology - and the falling number of teenagers taking maths has been a cause for concern for the government and for university maths departments.

This year, the number of pupils taking psychology A-level jumped 21.2%, from nearly 35,000 last year to nearly 42,000 in 2003 - that is only slightly lower than the number taking history - the fifth most popular subject at A-level.

Law increased in popularity by 20.6%, media, film and TV studies by 19.9%, business studies by 19.7% and music by 18.6%.

Subjects losing their attraction for pupils include physics (down 3%), chemistry (down 1.5%), biology (down 0.8%), German (down 0.9%) and French (down 0.5%).

Top five subjects
general studies
John Milner, the convenor of the Joint Council for General Qualifications, said: "The top five subjects are the same as last year - but history - the fifth is in a marginal position in regards to psychology."

John Dunford, the general secretary of the Secondary Heads Association, said pupils had their eyes on university when they opted for subjects which they perceived to be easier.

"As universities do not worry about what subjects pupils do, and use a points system, pupils choose subjects they think they will get a better grade in - like psychology."

He said all exams and subjects should be made of "comparable standard" and that it was a "hidden scandal" that A-levels were not.

He said the weeding out of weaker candidates meant it was not surprising that more A-grades were awarded in certain subjects.

Try the questions

But the government hit back at the accusations.

School standards minister David Miliband said: "Every A-level subject meets rigorous standards and several international panels have shown this to be true."

The Department for Educations and Skills released questions from this year's psychology A-level paper set by the AQA board:

"Research into multiple personality disorder, such as the case study of Eve by Thigpen and Cleckley, suggests that this is a spontaneous rather than iatrogenic phenomenon."

Critically consider whether multiple personality disorder is an iatrogenic or spontaneous phenomenon.

Compare and contrast two or more explanations of one anxiety disorder.

And the government also sent out details of this year's AQA law A-level:

"The 'rules' of precedent and statutory interpretation only appear to impose constraints on what judges may do. The truth is that judges can always find ways to develop the law in the directions they desire."

Discuss the view quoted above. Include in your answer a comparison between the role of judges and that of Parliament in developing the law.

"We often confuse law with justice. In reality, there is no necessary connection between them." Discuss the meaning of law and of justice, and consider the relationship between them.

The suggestion that psychology is an easy option has angered professionals in that field.

Professor Carol McGuinness of the School of Psychology at Queen's University in Belfast said: "Psychology is not an easy option.

"Those who study psychology for A-level are asked to understand a diverse range of psychological concepts, applications and methods - not dissimilar to what is included in a first year university course.

Some students will have a greater aptitude for certain subjects than others, but the standard remains the same
Ken Boston, QCA
"They are required to engage in evidence-based reasoning about psychological topics as well as to develop the skills of analysis, interpretation and evaluation."

Ken Boston, the chief executive of the exam watchdog, the QCA, also rejected the criticism, saying there was "no such thing as an easy A-level".

"The A-level is a world class qualification and standards are maintained year after year in all subjects.

"The A-level standard in each subject is set through rigorous criteria identifying the content to be studied and the standards of performance expected of candidates.

"Some students will have a greater aptitude for certain subjects than others, but the standard remains the same."

Number of A-levels taken by subject, with percentage change since last year
Art and Design 38314 +8.1%
Biology 51716 -0.8%
Business Studies 33133 +19.7%
Chemistry 36110 -1.5%
Classical Subjects 5900 +9.2%
Communication Studies 2356 -9.1%
Computing 28175 +7.6%
Drama/Expressive Arts 17221 +14.4%
Economics 17816 +4.7%
English 78746 +9.1%
French 15531 -0.1
General Studies 58430 +0.5%
Geography 35749 +4.0%
German 6950 -0.9%
History 42018 +6.3%
Home Economics 1240 -1.8%
Law 12381 +20.6%
Mathematics 55917 +3.7%
Media/TV/Film Studies 24179 +19.9%
Music 8826 +18.6
Other Modern Languages 5918 +7.2%
Physics 30583 -3.0%
Political Studies 9819 +12.0%
Psychology 41949 +21.2%
Religious Studies 12671 +18.6%
Science Subjects 4751 +6.3%
Sociology 24396 +7.4%
Spanish 5781 +3.8%
Sport/PE 19231 +12.2%
Technology Subjects 17091 +13.1%
Welsh 852 -6.8%
Other Subjects 6787 +20.3%
Source: Joint Council for General Qualifications

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