Mysteriously, when the GCSE results are presented every year, the Joint Council for Qualifications (JCQ) lumps together the results for law, sociology and psychology GCSEs into one ‘range of related subjects,’ which it calls Social Science Subjects. The numbers of entrants are admittedly not large – 42,637 students sat these social science GCSEs in 2014. But if you average that out at about 10,000-plus students for each subject, numbers are on a par with other subjects which the JCQ does not lump in with others: economics, for instance, or hospitality or humanities. The inclusion of law in this group is another oddity: would the law profession would consider itself as based on a ‘social science’?
In the overall picture of students who sat GCSEs in 2014, the social sciences account for only 0.8% of exams taken. The option to take these subjects is not available at many schools and certainly, these remain minority subjects. Yet the percentage rose from 0.7% last year, and is a continuing rising trend since 2006 when only 29,266 people took these exams.
Considering the popularity of sociology and particularly psychology at A level (nearly 55,000 students sat psychology) it appears strange that more pupils are not offered the option at GCSE. It may be that teachers feel that in all these subjects, an able student can step straight into the A Level without preparation at Key Stage 4. The results would seem to prove that, with success across the board in A level grades. It is also a question of overcrowding where GCSE options are concerned. Many schools simply haven’t the room or resources to offer subjects where they feel there won’t be much uptake, or there isn’t a need. Now, with the new Ebacc measurement of performance encouraging English schools to focus choices in five core areas – and where the science section does not include the option of psychology – more and more pupils will take history or geography and a language where they might have chosen less mainstream options in the past.
A science for girls?
Psychology has certainly been growing in popularity at GCSE level, with the numbers of candidates entered for the exam rising by over 60% in the five years to 2013. The subject is classed as a science at A level and university, and takes a rigorous approach to evidence gathering and methodology to ensure that its findings are trustworthy. And it is a science that girls are drawn to; at A Level, 70% of the candidates are female. It is a shame that this alternative route into the sciences is not more widely offered at GCSE to draw in female pupils, who find it more relevant to their interests.
Where Law GCSE is concerned, there is a point of view that concepts required to understand legal arguments are too difficult to be taught to 15 year olds, so that the subject is inevitably ‘dumbed down’ at this level, and therefore not worth teaching. Even at A Level, the majority of universities do not require a Law A Level for entry onto a degree course – the subject is just seen as one A level among all those a pupil takes, and not directly relevant.
It is certainly difficult for the teaching to keep up with legal developments. Nevertheless, some commentators argue that the GCSE helps develop communication skills and critical thinking, and offers a practical appreciation of a citizen’s rights and responsibilities and the workings of the legal system. Others argue that these areas are covered by citizenship classes.