Expert attacks 'fuzzy' subjects

August 20, 2004

Universities blamed for the popularity of non-traditional A levels as this year's results are published.

Universities are driving the rapid growth of "fuzzy" A-level subjects such as psychology and media studies, in a cynical bid to fill places, an expert has claimed.

Alan Smithers, head of the Centre for Education and Employment Research at Buckingham University, said that higher education institutions were influencing the school curriculum by promoting non-traditional subjects.

And he warned that the trend was damaging the traditional body of knowledge that forms the backbone of the British higher education system.

This year's A-level results show double-digit growth in many non-traditional subjects.

Psychology, art and design subjects and business studies were among this year's top ten A-level choices, accounting for more than 118,000 students between them - 15 per cent of the total.

Psychology recorded the third highest increase of 11.9 per cent to almost 47,000 candidates; in 1995 there were just 22,111. It was closely followed by media/film/ television studies, which jumped 11.2 per cent to 26,894 candidates.

The number of students taking computing fell 16.3 per cent, the number taking information and communications technology slumped more than 10 per cent, followed by German at 8.1 per cent. French fell by 2.5 per cent.

"In subjects such as chemistry and French it is clear to everyone whether you can do them or not, but media and sport studies are 'fuzzy' in the sense that it is much less obvious who is doing it well.

"Universities, out of a need to fill places, have been promoting these subjects as being good for jobs and students have been taking them as a way of going to university. Students and funding have been drawn away from the main bodies of knowledge, which have been suffering in both schools and universities as a result," Professor Smithers said.

Once again, there was a significant rise in the percentage of students achieving A grades, sparking claims of dumbing down.

The proportion of top grades increased from 21.6 per cent in 2003 to 22.4 per cent. Some 6 per cent of students achieved straight As in all modules.

Ellie Johnson Searle, director of the Joint Council for Qualifications, said the results were "a reflection of what the students earned" rather than grade inflation or more lenient marking. She was also "very confident" about the grade boundaries this year.

Male students have managed to claw back some of the gains made by females in recent years with a rise of 1 percentage point in the proportion achieving A grades, compared with 0.8 of a percentage point for females.

David Hargreaves, former head of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, welcomed the improvements in boys' results. He hoped that it marked "the end of the laddish culture".

He said that with close to a quarter of students getting As at A level, changes had to be made to distinguish between them. Students' marks were available and Professor Hargreaves saw "no reason" why universities should not be allowed to see them.

Mike Tomlinson's 14-19 reform group is expected to recommend dividing the A grade into four sub-grades so that universities can see if candidates achieved a high or low A-grade pass.

David Miliband, the School Standards Minister, this week suggested that the Government might adopt this strategy if it were included in Mr Tomlinson's report.

But Professor Hargreaves said that such a solution would simply generate more arguments over the divisions. "I do not think the case has been made for that."

chris.johnston@thes.co.uk

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