Apples and Oranges

Girls at Headington are very lucky that they have a huge range of subjects to choose from – more than 20 different options at GCSE and around 30 at A Level or IB. I met with girls and their parents this week who are getting ready to make their choices at GCSE and as always there were lots of questions. Which subjects do I need for which career, what will the syllabus cover, which subjects are worth more?

Not so long ago, Oxford’s two universities were asked if a 2:1 in History at each institution was worth the same. The answer was not clear-cut. This follows years of somewhat heated debate on whether top graded degrees in a so-called ‘Mickey Mouse’ subject like Surf Studies could be considered equivalent to the same class degree in, for example, Physics. Now attention has turned to GCSEs and A Levels. Yesterday I sent a member of staff to a consultation run by Ofqual as they consider whether you can truly compare one subject with another.

Let’s take an example. If you have three A*s in Media Studies, Sociology and General Studies, is that as ‘good’ as three A*s in Physics, Maths and Economics? Most would argue that the second set of grades is harder to achieve. Yet if you look at the proportions receiving the top grades in so-called ‘hard’ and ‘easy’ subjects, the results are slightly counterintuitive. An ‘easy’ subject like Film Studies might have just 10 per cent achieving the highest grade. If you look at a ‘hard’ subject such as Ancient Greek, you might expect that number to be lower. In fact, it is likely to be far higher. Does this make Ancient Greek ‘easier’ than Film Studies? Of course not. The truth is these more challenging subjects are self-selecting. The make-up of those choosing to take these subjects is skewed towards more able students as weaker students opt for a simpler course, meaning the proportion of top grades is higher.

Ofqual is considering whether the grade-awarding process should be changed to make it simpler to compare subjects, which could mean that harder subjects receive even more top grades than currently or could mean that the proportion of papers being awarded an A* or A is the same in each subject. No-one seems to agree whether this would be an improvement on the current system. There are differing views from students, parents, universities and employers – there are even different views from different subjects. It seems unlikely this consultation will result in a solution with which everyone is happy.

So is one subject really ‘better’ than another? A few years ago the Russell Group produced a list of ‘facilitating subjects’ at A Level and advised students should take at least two of the subjects on the list. A good rule of thumb, as far as it goes, but our own experience at Headington is that there are cases where even Oxford or Cambridge universities will welcome exceptional students without two facilitating subjects.

It is, and continues to be, virtually impossible to compare different subjects. You cannot compare apples to oranges. Ultimately there is no ‘one size fits all’ approach. The right set of subjects for one student will be the wrong set for another – an ideal set of ‘hard’ GCSEs will be perfect for one career path but of little use for a different route. At Headington we will continue to support our girls in making an informed choice on what is the best option for them, whatever that may be.


Caroline Jordan, Headmistress, Headington School 

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