Doubt has been cast over the claim that students must take three A levels in the so-called “facilitating subjects” in order to get into Russell Group universities.
New research has found that students are gaining entry to elite universities with A levels that include drama, art and design and economics, rather than subjects from the rigid list of nine “preferred subjects” drawn up by the Russell Group.
The study casts doubt on government claims that to get into elite institutions, applicants should present three top grades from the list of “facilitating” subjects which are deemed more desirable than other options.
Ministers have even introduced a performance measure in school league tables this year based on how many pupils take three A levels in facilitating subjects and the proportion who score grades AAB or higher in these subjects.
The Russell Group published a booklet last year called Informed Choices which lists maths, further maths, English literature, physics, biology, chemistry, geography, history, and languages as “facilitating” subjects. An early version of the booklet suggested three of these were desirable to gain entry to degree courses in its 24 member universities, although this has since been revised to two.
The original version was seized upon by ministers as evidence that some subjects are worth more than others and plans to include the information in league tables is thought to be influencing schools and colleges to encourage the most able students to take these subjects at A level to maximise their chances of getting a place.
However, research by Laura McInerney for the education think tank LKMco finds that a number of other subjects not on the list appear to be helping applicants to get places too.
The study asked the Russell Group universities, excluding Oxford and Cambridge, for data under the Freedom of Information Act on the number of applicants to popular courses with a particular
A level subject and what proportion got in. It found that economics, drama, accounting, art and design, and psychology were useful subjects to have at A level.
Some perceived “soft” subjects such as psychology were looked down upon by some of the universities but were treated favourably in others.
Ms McInerney said the facilitating subjects measure was “dangerous” because the picture of what subjects helped students to gain entry to their chosen degree subjects was much more complex.
“Preferences differ across subject, across university, and will depend on the student,” she said.
“Teachers want to advise our students as best as possible. We cannot do it with misinformation. It is unacceptable that the Russell Group and the government are promoting these subjects as being preferred when it might not be true.
“It’s time for them to come clean, and take this daft ‘3 fac subject measure’ out of the table, before it does harm.”
The research comes after headteachers demanded clarity over facilitating subjects earlier this year – a story covered in SecEd. (Clarity demanded over ‘facilitating subjects’, SecEd, February 7, 2013).
The Russell Group, whose members include the universities of Birmingham, Bristol, Nottingham, Durham and Sheffield, said this week that the study did not take into account combinations of subjects taken by the applicants. It emphasised that its guidance was that two, and not three, subjects would “keep options open”.
However, Graham Stuart, the Conservative chair of the House of Commons Education Select Committee, has asked the Russell Group to produce its own evidence into what subjects students need to get in to their universities.
Mr Stuart said in a letter to the Russell Group: “Young people need access to reliable information, to help them make the best possible decisions about their subject choices at A level – and about the degrees their talents may equip them to take. It is vital that organisations like the Russell Group supply high-quality guidance, backed up by reliable statistics. Applicants to our best universities should not be short-changed by incomplete or inaccurate advice.”
Wendy Piatt, director general of the Russell Group, said: “Our consistent advice is that taking two facilitating subjects will keep a wide range of degree courses and career options open to you. This is because these are the subjects most commonly required by our universities and hundreds of courses require one or more facilitating subjects.
“Clearly many students will study a combination of facilitating and non-facilitating subjects. It is impossible to draw any meaningful conclusions from looking at individual subjects in isolation without knowing the range of subjects a student has taken or what grades they achieved.
“The author herself acknowledges that the figures do not allow her to see combinations of A levels and her analysis ignores achievement, which is clearly a hugely important factor in admissions to selective institutions.”