Sociology was in the top ten A Level subjects taken in 2014, with 30,594 students sitting the exam. It was one of only four subjects where the proportion of students getting both A* and A star grades rose this year. The numbers taking Sociology A Level remain fairly static, despite the fact that it is not considered one of the ‘facilitating subjects’ which the Russell Group now suggests its applicants will need to achieve a place at one of these top universities.
Numbers also seem little affected by the move towards choosing more traditional subjects and away from perceived softer or less academic courses which has resulted from changes in government policy on how schools’ performance is judged.
What jumps out when you look at the statistics for sociology is that there is an overwhelming bias towards female students: 76% of those taking the exam were girls. Of those, over 20% achieved A and A* grades, while only 11% of boys who took the exam achieved this. It is clearly a subject which girls choose and at which girls excel. Should we be worrying that it is females who are choosing this so-called ‘easy’ subject, and not opting for the traditionally harder topics? Perhaps. But then again, perhaps they are preparing for their working lives.
The health service and social care in the UK is powered by an overwhelmingly female force: three million people work in these sectors, and around 80% of them are women (except for doctors, of whom 43% are female) reports the health think-tank the King’s Fund. This compares with 46% female in the wider UK workforce. Women continue to be drawn to the traditional caring roles – they are good at it! So is it surprising that they opt for subjects that will help them understand how society works and how people relate to each other? If they are considering a career where the social sciences will help them, why not take an A Level which allows them to explore families, culture and identity, crime, politics, as well as understand social theory and be able to use data to support one’s arguments?
Around seven thousand people graduate with a sociology degree each year, which shows just how many of those 30,000 A level students go on to pursue their chosen subject at higher level.
New subject matter
Meanwhile, as part of the Government’s review of GCSEs and A Levels, the subject content of Sociology A level has been revised. The DfE specifies in its guidance of April 2014 that the study ‘must focus on contemporary society’. The exam boards are bringing out their responses to the DfE’s changes. OCR, one of England’s biggest exam boards, has created an updated course which includes social media, the culture of ‘selfies’, online safety and privacy.
A spokesperson for the board says, ‘With more than 1.3 billion people on Facebook over a million selfies posted each day and more people worldwide having access to a mobile phone (6 billion) than to a working toilet (4.5 billion), students will analyse how societies manage the positive and negative impacts of, for example, freedom of information, privacy, online safety, equality of access to technology and gender stereotyping.’ It sounds fascinating – and the popularity of the subject is likely to remain high.