Going back to last year, the government introduced a new league table – another clever way of keeping schools locked into the ‘exam factory’ style of education and to make sure that they’re been constantly monitored. This idea was to look at A Levels and what it calls ‘facilitating subjects.’

Schools were recorded on how many students attained 2 As and a B in any of the following subjects:

  • Maths
  • English
  • The Sciences – Chemistry, Biology or Physics
  • The Humanities – Geography or History
  • Computing
  • Languages – presumably foreign in this case

Immediately, I can tell there are a few people wondering what the point of all this was.  Why these subjects and why this ‘facilitating subjects’ designation?  It turns out that the government took ‘advice’ from the Russell Group – the group representing some of the top universities in the country.  Every so often, many of them produce a booklet on which subjects are considered more likely to get a space on a degree level course.  Of course, the government jumped on this and used this as a marker that sixth forms have to look at very closely.  An elite group of universities going hand in hand with an elitist government (at least in an educational sense) – what could go wrong?

It would appear that the changes have caught the eye of LKMco, a company describing themselves as working across education, including teacher training and supporting youth projects. One look at the changes and the addition of another measure and, before you know it… A copy lands on my desk. Their analysis of offers and subjects provides a rather big surprise for us: that this whole ‘facilitating subjects’ idea doesn’t actually stack up well when you look at what universities are offering students considering their grades and A-Level choices.

Back in March 2013, LKM published an article about facilitating subjects at Oxford and how, in terms of offers onto Maths and PPE (Politics, Philosophy and Economics) the traditional list we’ve mentioned wasn’t anywhere near what was getting students offers for such places. What they found was that, whilst more students were getting offers for PPE and Maths thanks to those on the facilitating list (the most popular being maths and history and maths and further maths respectively), the percentages tell a very different story…

  • If you look at the percentage of students with a certain A-Level getting offered spaces on PPE, the top two are Critical Thinking and Latin – a classic foreign language. The first of the facilitating subjects from our list are modern foreign languages – sat behind music on the list and one space above maths.
  • For entry into maths, the results are even more interesting. Though the top two subjects are on the facilitating list, they are languages (any) and history – hardly the most relevant of A-Level options for the actual degree. Further maths and maths come 5th and 7th respectively!

Whilst there are limitations to this particular study – such as surveying two subjects at one university – it does make you wonder if universities are following their own guidelines on facilitating subjects. Even if they are, you could question the relevance of some of A-Level being accepted onto programmes. I’ve personally curious where foreign languages and maths fit into maths but then again I’ve always been curious how universities deal with admissions anyhow… With the facilitating guides from Russell Group universities leaving the government eating out of the hands of the elite institutions, LKM took it one stage further – they looked a wide variety of subjects across the Russell Group as a whole. They excluded Oxford and Cambridge from the discussion and data as they ‘dominate conversation but are only two universities in a rather large list.’

  • All of the remaining institutions were asked – under Freedom of Information requests – to provide application and offer data for their courses in engineering, history, law, maths, medicine and modern foreign languages. Not all universities offer all of these so it was a case of ‘whatever data you have for the courses you do.’
  • Imperial College, LSE and Queen Mary provided incomplete information on their courses, so this was discarded. Leeds, Manchester, Newcastle, Nottingham, Southampton, UCL and refused to provide anything – Warwick would refuse to provide details of their medical course but opened up on their foreign languages. In total, 20 sets of application/offer data was provided by a total of 10 universities and colleges.

With the data from applications and offers all collated into tables, we are left with some startling conclusions, especially when you remember that the government league table looks at how many students have picked three A-Levels all from the facilitating list – even picking just two of three and it’s considered a ‘bust’ according to the author of LKM’s findings. Put simply, the theory of facilitating subjects into Russell Group universities does not hold up. In the majority of cases in the data, at least 2 subjects considered non-facilitating recorded higher offer rates than those on the facilitating list. In two cases, 12 subjects were ranked higher for offers than facilitating subjects. Staggering. LKM go as far as saying that taking three facilitating subjects at the expense of others might actually negatively affect your chances of getting an offer from a Russell Group institution. This conclusion is based on three pieces of compelling evidence in the data:

  • Economics is not featured on the facilitating list, yet in all but two data sets it out-ranks history, English and modern foreign languages. In the other two (law at Bristol and Exeter’s medicine course) economics is within 2% of any of these three.
  • Drama (including theatre studies) – never regarded as a ‘hard’ A-Level and often described as soft by cynics – actually ranks higher than law itself in all three of the data sets for law offers. In two of the cases, it ranks in the two top two (scoring a 100% offer rate in both) and in the third ranks alongside economics – already established as a high-value A-Level option.
  • LKM points out that a lot of the subjects snubbed by the government do indeed, at tines, appear lower down the list of subjects. For example, physchology appears low on on the list of success for history degree offers yet at the very top for medicine at Exeter – far higher than A-Level history. Clearly admissions tutors see it as a good guide for suitability.  In layman’s terms, it depends on what you want to study as much as what you studied, thus making s facilitating list practically useless.

The Russell Group universities have clearly got this wrong – they’re not sticking to their own principles of offers and admission. I suspect those who didn’t respond to the requests for information have a lot to tell too.

Worst of all is the government and their plans to encourage students to limit their options when it comes to A-Levels and to so willingly cuddle up to the Russell Group – probably where half the ministers in charge of this poorly thought-out idea studied I would guess. The measure is useless and puts more pressure on schools, teachers and students. They’ve not done the research and jumped on a crashing bandwagon.

The idea needs to be scrapped. Over to you Nicky Morgan, maybe as our new Minister of Education you will see sense.




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