A-level: From ‘academic and vocational’, to ‘soft and hard’.


Martin Allen                                                                                                                                                                                                              

NUT 14-19  discussion paper 

(For an update on A-level developments see https://radicaled.wordpress.com/2012/09/17/a-level-of-expediency/)

Comprehensive schools have fought hard to build up their sixth-forms. The early comprehensive reformers were critical of A-level- an examination designed for a small minority of post-war school students. Yet  as Caroline Benn and Clyde Chitty recognised Thirty-years on comprehensive schools ‘accommodated to elitism’ – understanding that their adversaries would judge them on whether they were able to place their more academically talented students in universities.  

As staying on rates increased, governments introduced a succession of ‘vocational alternatives’ primarily for young people in non-selective sixth forms and in FE colleges, but these courses failed to establish themselves.  Student (and parent) scepticism about whether a GNVQ really was worth the same as 2 A-levels,  was confirmed by the fact that Russell universities were unlikely to admit anyone with GNVQ as their main qualification and by the fact that selective or Independent schools did not offer it.

As GCSE pass rates continue to rise, any sixth former who can, is likely to enrol on an A-level course. As a result, new courses and syllabuses have emerged and comprehensives have extended their A-level provision.  Today, 75% of 850,000 plus A-level entries are from non – selective schools and even though Independent schools still account for 50% of the A-grades, comprehensives have closed  the gap for grade Bs and Cs.

Whenever the educational playfield appears to be levelling however, something always seems to cave in. Mindful of the fact that A-level is now a mass qualification some Independents and selective schools have ditched it completely and concentrated on the International Baccalaureate (IB) or have adopted the new Cambridge Pre-U.  Those who retain A-level as their main provision now hope that they will be able to use the new A* grade to maintain their advantage.

It’s also clear however that divisions between ‘soft’ and ‘hard’ A-level subjects are now becoming as important as the old divisions between ‘academic’ and ‘vocational’. The Headmaster of Harrow, was recently quoted (Guardian 23/01/10)  accusing state schools of ‘conning’ students from poor back grounds by handing out ‘worthless’ qualifications and  telling them that ‘high grades in soft subjects’ and ‘going to any old university’ would help  them succeed in life. The Telegraph (18/11/08) had previously reported Michael Gove’s   comments that ‘there had been a flight from quality’ into soft A-levels.  Aspiring students in comprehensive sixth forms are without doubt, increasingly aware of these divisions and choose their A2 options accordingly.

In fact, Cambridge University and the LSE both publish ‘B’ lists of subjects not considered appropriate.

Cambridge’s   ‘less than ideal’

Accounting, Art and design, Business studies, Communication studies, Dance, Design and technology, Drama and theatre studies, Film studies, Health and social care, Home economics, Information and Communication Technology, Leisure studies, Media studies, Music technology ,Performance studies, Performing arts, Photography, Physical education, Sports studies, Travel and tourism


Accounting , Art and Design, Business Studies, Communication Studies , Design and Technology, Drama/Theatre Studies, Home Economics, Information and Communication Technology,  Law, Media Studies, Music Technology Sports Studies , Travel and Tourism

Cambridge advises pupils not to take more than one of a list of 20 A-level subjects, including art and design, dance, film studies and media studies, as part of the three A-levels normally needed to obtain a place. What’s also interesting in these lists is that the differences between ‘applied’ (previously ‘vocational’) and academic versions of subjects like ‘business studies’ seem to have disappeared. Business studies as a whole is now a ‘bum’ subject – one that the most elite schools will seek to avoid. A quick survey gives the following snapshot:

                                              Business Studies in the sixth form

 Eton College          no

 Harrow School    yes                              

 Charterhouse       Business and Management as Pre-U subject

 Cheltenham Ladies College         no     

 St Pauls (independent day)         no

 Manchester Grammar   (independent day)      “we do not offer other A-level courses                                                                                                                                                       in particular psychology…business studies”

 TiffIn  Girls School    (state selective)        no

 London Oratory School   (state voluntary aided)        yes

 Watford Grammar School for Boys (state selective)   no

(Source   Martin Allen ‘The New Business Studies Generation’ SRHE paper / Greenwich University 27/01/10)

The centre-right think-tank Policy Exchange provides extensive data on how leading universities view ‘soft’ subjects. Examples are as follows:

• At Oxford, more students were accepted in 2007-08 with Further Mathematics A-level (711) than Accounting, Art & Design, Business Studies, Communication Studies, Design & Technology, Drama/Theatre Studies, Film Studies, Home Economics, ICT, Law, Media Studies, Music Technology, Psychology, Sociology, Sports Studies/Physical Education and Travel & Tourism A-level combined (overall 494 of these subjects wereaccepted).

Biology, Chemistry, Further Mathematics, Mathematics and Physics comprised close to half of all accepted A-levels  for Bristol (49.8%) and UCL (46.9%).  More than three times as many Economics A-levels (640) were accepted at Nottingham University than Sociology (193) or Drama/Theatre Studies (165). These two subjects are both more popular than Economics at A-level in schools.  More than four times as many A-levels were accepted in French at Warwick University (331) as in Law (82). Law is more popular than French at A-level in schools. More than four times as many A-levels were accepted in Physics at Manchester University (1875) than in Media and Film Studies combined (403).

(Source – The hard truth about ‘soft’ subjects’ | Anna Fazackerley and Julian Chant | www.policyexchange.org.uk)

As significantly, as with the business studies survey above, the data links certain types of subjects with certain types of schools. For example 75% of all A-level examinations are taken in non-selective schools, but 96% of Law and 93% of media studies entries are in these schools. Psychology is now the third most popular subject, but only 6% of entries are in Independent schools

Discussion points

  • Do we take the advice of Gove and Lenon and insist comprehensive schools get their top students to make better choices? (On the grounds that if we don’t do this, inequalities between schools can only widen and that we want to do the best for all our students)
  • Do we accept ‘dumbing down’ claims that some subjects are actually ‘easier’?
  • Do we continue to defend the larger coursework components of some ‘soft’ subjects?
  •  How do we challenge the elitist conceptions of knowledge held by Russell/research intensive universities?

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