July 1, 2008

Don’t Be Hard on Pupils ; Some Subjects More Difficult Than Others

By Jule Wilson

EXAMINERS should take into account the difficulty of subjects like science and maths when marking compared to "easier" options like media studies, according to North East researchers.

The research, released today by Durham University, states that school-children studying science and technology subjects like maths, physics and chemistry find it harder to achieve the top exam grades than candidates of a similar ability studying subjects such as media and psychology.

Experts at the institution analysed and compared data from nearly a million pupils sitting GCSE and A-level exams and reviewed 28 different cross-subject studies conducted in the UK since 1970.

On average, the report, commissioned by the Institute of Physics and the Royal Society on behalf of Science Community Representing Education, reveals that subjects like physics, chemistry and biology at A-level are a whole grade more difficult than drama, sociology or media studies, and three-quarters of a grade harder than English, RE or business studies.

Report author Dr Robert Coe, deputy director of Durham University's Curriculum, Evalutaion and Management Centre, voiced concern that students may be persuaded to avoid the more difficult science and maths-based subjects.

He said: "We are calling for marking for harder subjects to take account of their difficulty, perhaps introducing a scaling system similar to that already used in Australia, so that some subjects are acknowledged to be worth more than others."

One film production company based in the North East said the research was largely irrelevant.

Tine Munk, production manager at Yipp Films, said: "For those considering a career in a field such as the media or something practical or creative, this report is irrelevant because people will always choose what they feel is right for them with regard to their own individual talents.

"If you're strong-minded you will do that anyway, regardless of how hard or easy it is meant to be. Working in such a competitive field is not easy and I think people should be careful not to label media studies or other creative subjects as soft options." Wes Streeting, president of the National Union of Students, agreed.

He said: "The debate around so-called soft A-levels is a futile one and evidence to support the notion is subjective and patchy at best. This is one of the reasons NUS supports the introduction of the new 14-19 diplomas which will provide students with both theoretical knowledge and applied skills as well as a variety of progression routes into university, apprenticeships and work."

Ross Smith, head of policy and research at the North East Chamber of Commerce, said he hoped the report would not deter students from opting for the sciences.

He added: "Ensuring future employees have science, engineering and maths skills is crucial for the North East economy, so we must make sure students have the right incentives to study these subjects."


THE new analysis contradicts a report released by the exams regulator the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority in February this year which found that while some exams may be harder than others, subjects were broadly in line with one another.

Schools Minister Jim Knight said last night the research oversimplified the case.

He said: "Comparing different subjects and qualifications with each other is a complex and detailed task.

"The new independent regulator, Ofqual, has been set up precisely to maintain rigorous standards and control the exam and qualifications system tightly."


PUPILS are being set simplistic exam questions when they have been taught to a much higher ability, scientists said yesterday.

The Royal Society of Chemistry said there was a widening gulf between the high-quality teaching and curriculum materials available for science lessons in the UK's schools and the questions set in national examinations for 14-year-olds.

Large amounts of money have been ploughed into enhancing the delivery of science, technology, engineering and maths, but this was being negated by examiners who were reinforcing low expectations and setting standards only to the levels that weaker schools teach to, the society said.

Its chief executive Richard Pike said: "This is not just a matter of having questions of varying difficulty to accommodate a wide range of ability within the student cohort.

"Rather, even questions tailored for an ability range such as tiers three to six in Key Stage 3 are far less demanding than reflected in the content of text books written specifically for this range."

Dr Pike said that in this summer's examination, only four quantities with the units length, volume, mass and temperature, were referred to, while other multiple choice questions had self- directing options which led students to the right answer.

A spokesman for the National Assessment Agency said: "Each test paper takes two years to develop and goes through rigorous pre- testing."

(c) 2008 The Journal - Newcastle-upon-Tyne. Provided by ProQuest Information and Learning. All rights Reserved.