soft subjectssoft subjects, a level choices and hard truths

At RIC we do not encourage everyone who comes to us for advice to enrol. We only offer subject combinations that strengthen academic profiles and our biggest subjects in terms of A level entries are Maths and English Literature.

A prospective student from a local school applying for a sixth form place surprised us with his proposed choice of A level subjects- Business, ICT, Media and Psychology. Asked what his current school had said about that combination, he had apparently been told that as it fitted the timetable it was perfectly acceptable.
Such a choice would have almost certainly ruled out a place at any of the UK’s top tier universities. It’s a stark illustration of why, particularly with fees about to triple in cost, an improvement in the quality of higher education guidance in some schools is vital.

Until this year only the LSE and Cambridge published blacklists of ‘non preferred’ or soft subjects. The situation is now clearer with The Russell Group of 20 leading universities releasing a list of “facilitating” subjects that are the best passport to a place. These are, unsurprisingly, traditional academic ones – Maths, English, Geography, History, Biology, Chemistry, Physics and Classical or Modern Foreign languages.

The guide, ‘Informed Choices’ warns 16 year olds directly: “If you decide not to choose some of the facilitating subjects at advanced level, many degrees at competitive universities will not be open to you.” The government minister with resposibility for universities, David Willets, even suggested this week that these subjects should carry more UCAS points in recognition of their more demanding nature.

Allowing students to take too many ‘soft’ subjects may help schools skyrocket up league tables but it seriously damages their chances of a place at the most highly selective universities. A levels such as Law, Business Studies and Accounting seem to promise a glittering professional future. They are, in fact, not rated highly by the top universities whose degrees lead most successfully to careers in these competitive fields. It is no coincidence that the independent and grammar schools that dominate admissions to the best universities do not offer such subjects.

With the Russell Group’s report, universities have finally stopped being coy about these facts. Schools now have the responsibility of ensuring sixth formers know how important it is they choose their subjects wisely. James Montgomery who finished his A levels at RIC last summer says:

“I started my A levels at a local comprehensive and I quickly realised that I had made the wrong choice of subjects and the school couldn’t offer the ones that I really wanted to do. In year 12 at my previous school I studied Double Applied Science but what I really needed to get into a good university were Biology and Chemistry. I restarted sixth form at RIC and saw the change immediately. My motivation was transformed. The very small groups and teachers allowed me to go at the fast pace that I needed.”

James has just finished the first year of his Chemistry degree at St Andrews University.

The real strength of any sixth form then is its ability to match the right A level subjects to the right student and their university aspirations. At Rochester Independent College the three students who won places at Cambridge in 2011 all studied Further Maths.  The quality of guidance in schools is just as important in securing university places as good teaching and students’ hard work.

What RIC will not do however is steer students towards too many traditional academic subjects if this is an unsuitable route. Often a strategic combination of subjects works well and we match the right subjects to an individual student’s aptitudes and interests.

Those aiming for creative courses take Fashion and Textiles, Photography, Graphic Design, Film, History of Art and Media and we are proud of their achievements. Our medics benefit enormously from Sociology as a third or fourth subject. Our dentists often take an extra AS in Ceramics.

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