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Choosing A-level Subjects

Students at work in the new Sixth Form building

One day the Covid era will end. I am planning for a return to normality in September and a chance for our beleaguered Year 11 students to begin their Sixth Form studies in the usual way. The deadline for them to choose their A-level subjects approaches. Gone are the days when students had the luxury of simply picking the subjects in which they were most interested. I hope that they will just follow their interests but I understand that the need to maximise the chances of obtaining entry into a top university and to fulfil the subject demands of a particular course, which may lead to profitable employment, brings the pressures of utility to the choice.

All this is in addition to the long-standing and unhelpful temptations to align your choices with those of friends and to choose subjects taught by your favourite teachers (who may not end up teaching you in any case). The uncertainty of whether success and enjoyment at GCSE will continue for two long years at A-level also looms, particularly for subjects begun new in the Sixth Form such as Economics or Psychology.

Fewer subjects now seem to be required at A-level for particular degree courses although Chemistry and usually Biology will always be demanded by Medicine courses and Mathematics is essential for many courses in Engineering, Physical Science (and Mathematics). Usually, a traditional subject at university requires the equivalent subject at A-level but the reverse is true for subjects such as Law. Researching this topic thoroughly is very important and the UCAS website is invaluable. A search by degree subject lists all the universities that offer the subject. Clicking on each of these leads to an entry profile specifying any required A-level subjects as well as the interests and aptitudes a successful student should possess. The Russell Group universities, comprising the top 24 UK research intensive universities, have tended to favour traditional subjects, for many years urging potential applicants to take at least 2 subjects from this list: Biology, Chemistry, Physics, Mathematics, Further Mathematics, Geography, History, English Literature and Modern and Classical Languages. Whilst I don’t doubt that this was good advice there were some notable omissions, such as Economics, and a (seemingly deliberate) absence of any subjects which include much coursework. One might argue that the tenacity and time management required to complete an A-level in Design & Technology, Music, Art, Theatre Studies and so on would be essential for the style of independent learning required at university. Eventually the Russell Group abandoned their list of ‘facilitating subjects’ in favour of a broader approach through the informed choices website (worth a look).

At SGS we offer students a free choice of 24 A-level subjects with all students beginning with the study of 4 subjects, despite the move to linear A-levels and a focus on 3 A-level grades from many universities. Students can then drop their weakest subject when they have sufficient familiarity with A-level study to make an informed choice. If they are enjoying their A-Level studies and keeping up with the work then they can continue to study 4 subjects throughout and be well-prepared for an application to the most competitive degree courses. Mathematics, Chemistry, Biology, Physics, Psychology and Economics tend to dominate the popularity stakes but I am delighted that we are able to sustain such a rich diversity of subjects with numbers of students selecting languages or music still healthy. This surely makes the Sixth Form community more interesting and hopefully many students are genuinely choosing subjects that really excite them. Independent schools now help to sustain some subjects at university: only 14% of Sixth Form students are educated in independent schools but over 25% of all students entered for A-levels in Modern Foreign Languages are educated independently.

Students can also take an Extended Project Qualification (EPQ), one of the few great examination innovations of the last ten years. It allows students to research a subject of their choice and then produce some sort of outcome: this can be a piece of artwork or a model or a performance but is more usually a five-thousand-word report on their findings. The students break free from the often-predictable treadmill of A-level courses, and genuinely follow their own interests, as well as developing research skills as an excellent preparation for university study. This second point should not be overlooked as so many universities complain that first year undergraduates are not able to learn independently, as higher education requires, having been spoon fed through their Sixth Form years. I don’t agree with this criticism but, clearly, anything that champions learning for its own sake and gives an insight into the research process is going to be useful.

The universities are pretty positive about EPQ and it gives the students something to talk about at interview, illustrating their own academic reading and showing enthusiasm for learning. The project is also worth half an A-level: an entirely justifiable value given the amount of effort required for success. At the end of the project the students must present a summary of their findings to an audience: a great exercise in developing public speaking skills and a proud moment for the students to present ‘their’ research. The variety of the talks is always impressive and the enthusiasm palpable.

At such a difficult time, I hope that the Year 11 students will enjoy anticipating a normal Sixth Form experience in September.