James Groves

The return of traditional subjects

The return of traditional subjects
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Today’s A-level results once again see the pass rate continuing to rise, in this instance for the 28th year in a row, with 97.6% of entries gaining an E or above, up from 97.5% in 2009. While not wishing to detract from the efforts of students and teachers, unfortunately such a rise has become all too expected, to the point where there would almost have to be a public inquiry if it were not to happen. Nor should the introduction of the A* at A-Level warrant particular attention, except perhaps to say that it serves as a symbol of how far we have allowed grade inflation to go.  


Crucially, however, this year’s A-Level cohort have distinguished themselves in one particular regard. Faced with the reality of the most competitive year for university admissions in a decade, the decision of more students than before to ditch softer-subjects and to return to more traditional A-Levels should be welcomed. The number of students who chose maths, economics and further maths has soared by 6.2 percent, 9 percent and 11.5 percent, respectively. Science A-Levels have resurged this year with biology entries up 4.3 percent, chemistry up 3.7 percent and physics up by 5.2 percent. Conversely, general studies continued to fall for the fifth year running and made up just 6 percent of all A-level entries.


This year’s cohort of A-Level students and their parents should be congratulated on having the initiative to improve their chances in the midst of economic downturn. Such a change in trend has not, it should be added, been borne of an improvement in the Information, Guidance and Advice capabilities of our universities. In The Hard Truth About ‘Soft’ Subjects, published in 2008, we at Policy Exchange spoke to 27 leading research intensive universities, the vast majority of which admitted that they accepted fewer ‘soft’ A-Levels in comparison with the national uptake of these subjects in schools. At that point we called for each university to give clear guidance on those subjects they consider to be less effective preparation for certain courses. To date, LSE and Cambridge University remain the only universities to publish lists of non-preferred subjects. Our students have shown that they are capable of stepping up their game. It’s clearly time that our universities did likewise.  


James Groves is Head of Policy Exchange’s Education Unit