It Is quite hard to start any conversation about A-level education without using the words ‘In my day…’. Many people accuse A-level programmes of having dumbed down with the introduction of more varied courses, while universities are first in the queue to attack so-called ‘soft’ subjects, such as A-level Law. And school students with an A-level in law could, in fact, be damaging their chances of making the grade at top universities.
A study by the Policy Exchange think tank suggests that top universities are creating unofficial blacklists of subjects they believe lack academic rigour – with law being one of the least respected courses, ranking alongside media studies and psychology.
The stance has outraged students. Cambridge University law student Paul Powlesland said he is sick of the “constant sniping” aimed at A-level Law. “I studied it and, as a result, when I arrived at Cambridge to study law, I had a big head start on everyone else in terms of both knowledge and skills,” he said.
“A-level Law was more useful to me than the other ‘traditional’ subjects I took.”
Exeter University law student Taz Bhachoo also studied law at A-level and claimed it helped him “hit the ground running” when he started his degree.
“It’s outrageous to say A-level Law is softer than others because it’s not – it’s really very demanding,” he argued. “Studying it at A-level confirmed for me what I wanted to study at university.”
At its heart, the controversy over A-level Law is not about how easy the exam is, but a discussion about whether school education should focus on practical skills or on abstract theorising.
It is clear that the top universities favour the traditional subjects of maths, English literature and physics over those that have a direct association with professional skills.
The Policy Exchange study found that Oxford University this year accepted 711 students with an A-level in further maths. In contrast, only 494 students with A-levels in modern subjects such as business studies, art and design and law were allowed through its hallowed gates.
The report showed that ‘soft’ professional subjects, such as law, account for 6.4 per cent of all A-levels taken. But at the 27 universities surveyed, the subjects make up only 4.3 per cent of A-levels accepted. Cambridge University and the London School of Economics have gone so far as to publish lists of undesirable
A-level subjects. Dance and home economics are on the list, but law escapes.
But there is no need for law to be a softer option at A-level than subjects such as economics or geography, as long as the teaching is of a good quality and the curriculum rigorous. The challenge will be to convince universities that bright people do study law at A-level and that they are just as likely to excel at their undergraduate degrees as anyone else. Even the home economics students.