Monday, 13 August 2007

some 'A' levels are too easy - fewer take Science 'A' level

The 'soft' sell

The idea that A-level students should get extra points for taking maths or science is absurd. Humanities subjects are equally - if not more - valuable.

Sunday's Observer contained the discoveries of a new report, to be released "soon", that claims maths and science based A-levels are harder than humanities and should therefore get a proportionate weighting in the Ucas tariff system. The report found subjects such as English and history had much lower failure rates and blamed this for the fall in the number of pupils taking what they considered to be "harder" subjects. Their argument was that more people are choosing softer options in order to ensure decent grades, which in turn has led to a decline in the number of people taking up maths and science at university.

The figures cited are undeniable but the suggestion that humanities subjects are softer options beggars belief, as does the idea of giving subjects deemed "hard" a greater importance in applying for university and in performance tables. It's understandable for the authors of the report to be concerned by a downturn in the numbers taking up their subjects but if their suggestions are put into practice there will just be a reversal of the situation with less pupils willing to study the arts. Essentially we would be discouraging children from taking an interest in the very things that shape our societies and make us human.

Besides all this I am far from convinced by this labelling of humanities subjects as easy. Some might argue that English is merely reading books, history nothing but learning dates and drama just an excuse to mess around; but by that reasoning science and maths are simply learning formulas by rote. Studying English means looking beyond the words on the page to the meaning behind them - how they related to the time they were written, whether they're still relevant today, why they capture one's imagination. Most importantly it requires independent thought, easily the most important thing that should be taught in schools.

Surely no one would ever consider Shakespeare an easy option. Iambic pentameter provides a maths workout in itself and that's before you begin trying to decipher what messages are contained within the syntax of the lines. Then there are the caesuras, the run-ons, the feminine endings, interplay between verse and prose - and that's before we even get started on the plots and complex emotional threads that are weaved throughout each play. Hamlet isn't just a story about a boy whose uncle killed his father and married his mother, like some early version of EastEnders. It is a turning point of world theatre, a subversion of the classic revenge/tragedy genre, a parable of lost love, homage to disconsolate youth and study of the very human soul itself. Algebra might be useful but it just doesn't have the same impact or relevance.

And what about history? Are we really to believe that learning your times tables is more important than the rise of Hitler, female suffrage, the creation of the welfare state and the struggle for civil rights. If we aren't taught how the Nazis wormed their way into power how can we ever stop it happening again? If we don't know the awful effects of a segregated society then we can't be expected to rise above our differences (a point that needs enforcing in the increasingly divided world in which we live).

It's certainly not easy to examine horrific events of the past and evaluate, objectively, what they mean and how they occurred. Neither is it a "soft" option to tackle a work of Dickens or Chaucer. Try translating The Knight's Tale and see if you find it a simple task. The truth is that more people pass humanities subjects because they are more interested in them and so are more willing to take their learning to a higher level. Of course maths is an imperative field of study and essential for many walks of life, but the reason its popularity has fallen has nothing to do with it being difficult and everything to do with an increased range of options available coupled with a dull, irrelevant curriculum. Maybe if maths lessons were made more practical, examining how it is used in jobs such as engineering, it would encourage greater numbers to take an interest and even to consider such careers.

Either way, there's no sense in punishing humanities students for not enjoying biology or calculus as much as Austen. The whole point of A-levels is to give everyone the chance to find out about what really interests them and investigate it further. Coercing people into less popular subjects by promises of more Ucas points will only lead to large numbers of students dissatisfied by their choices or bored by their experience of school. I had hoped we'd left the Dark Ages of education behind, with its Gradgrind-esque focus on hard facts, and that we were now willing to accept that the humanities were respectable subjects in their own right. As their name suggests they are studies of the human race and everything encompassed therein, which is an important area of interest, but this report's suggestions relegate them into the league of academic frippery.

There is no sensible reason to consider maths and science as more worthy of reward than another subject. I took English literature, drama and music for my A-levels but I don't see why this should be seen as less of an accomplishment than that of my friend who took further maths. After all we had the same number of lessons, took the same number of exams, had the same resources at the same school and were both tested under exam conditions. If anything I should have been given extra points - I didn't use a calculator. No, subjects in school are equally challenging and the academics that push their own subjects above the rest will have to find another way to entice students into their classes.

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