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7th October 2013

The myth of the preferred A Level damages education

Alice Rigby explains how pressurising students into taking certain A Levels is coercive and excessive

Students are bombarded with advice when choosing what to pursue after compulsory education at the age of 16. Some choose apprenticeships, while others choose to study for vocational qualifications like GNVQs. Despite these other options, the vast majority still choose A Levels as a route to university courses or employment at 18.

With that comes yet more choice and the government have recently initiated plans to put further pressure on schools to encourage students to select specific subjects. They propose a new league table that would rank a school on the basis of how many facilitating, often referred to as preferred, subjects its students took. However, a study based on admissions information for popular courses released by Russell Group universities due to a FOI request showed that the concept of preferred subjects seems seriously misjudged.

What many students will recognise in amongst all of the data and discussion over the study’s findings is the complexity of subject selection advice at A Level. One of the features of the A Level system is that the range of subjects studied by each student narrows hugely at 16, with a maximum of four being the norm. There is a frightening amount of pressure on 16 year olds to have an idea of what they want to do after school or college as they need to commit to this through their selection of subjects.

When preferred subjects are thrown into this mix, the pressure only intensifies. High performing pupils are encouraged to take the classically academic subjects on the grounds that this will give them the widest range of future options. The list bypasses apparently less rigorous courses such as Economics, Politics and English Language. Conversely these are some of the most broadly studied subjects at university level.

When students are discouraged from studying them at A Level they have no experience of what these subjects are actually like. This could have a dual effect; on the one hand, it could prevent them from taking these subjects up at university due to their lack of knowledge comparative to students in the past. However, it could also result in some students taking these subjects and later regretting their selection.

The rumours surrounding preferred subjects could have an even more dramatic impact. Teachers, parents, universities and the media may discourage pupils from applying to more rigorous universities and courses in this country on the basis of their lack of ‘facilitating’ subjects. This would be tragically misleading. The study into preferred subjects showed, for example, that applying with drama among your three or four A levels seems to almost guarantee entry into essay based subjects. While the data is simplified and the combination of subjects not considered, it is clear that this ‘black listed’ A level is not actually the total turn off for university admissions tutors that it is touted to be.

While drama is often not a student’s chosen career path, they may enjoy the subject and want to continue it in conjunction with other, more applicable, A Levels. It is not unreasonable to suggest that taking the subjects you enjoy is much more likely to translate into success. If you are genuinely interested in a subject you are more likely to participate in classes and complete work with a degree of enthusiasm.

The most damaging consequence of recommending A levels on these grounds is that the focus is placed firmly on outcomes. Students are already aware of the almost overwhelming pressure to get certain grades. Asking students to keep in mind, from the moment they choose their A Level subjects, a certain post-18 pathway only adds to this pressure. What is missing from education in these circumstances is any sense of studying for the sheer pleasure of it. For a student who may well be in education voluntarily for another 3 or 4 years, it’s not hard to believe that this could be a helpful outlook.

There is some sense in recommending certain subjects to certain students. Some degrees simply require specific subjects, such as economics with maths in most cases. Some A Level combinations may seem so unusual that a student will at least have to consider how they will justify their decision-making on their personal statement, for instance. Some subject choices may actually damage the opportunities some students are considering and this should be openly discussed with them. Similarly, having a loose idea of their preferred outcome can help channel students abilities throughout the relatively rapid A Level process.

However, the myth of preferred subjects being some kind of holy grail for high performing universities is clearly just that, a myth. The damage that perpetuating this idea does to students pressurised into taking specific subjects, with their future held to ransom until they do, is clearly excessive. What should be encouraged, at the first stage in their education when students really get to choose their own path, is a sense of pride and enjoyment in the selection they make. Only then will students achieve the results, both personally and in their education, which will enable them to be most successful, whatever the route they end up taking.

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