Importance of subject choice

23 May 2019

Learning about subject choice is important for students of all backgrounds - but particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds writes Russell Group Chief Executive Dr Tim Bradshaw.

Some people just know what they want to be when they grow up. I watched Open University science programmes on Sunday mornings and wanted to uncover the mysteries of the earth. I duly took A Levels in Chemistry, Maths and Geology before studying the latter at degree level and for my PhD. The educational path for me was clear, at least for the early part of my career.

Many young people, however, are less sure. Should they focus on the subjects they enjoy, or those they are told will lead to the best jobs? Should they specialise in sciences, arts or humanities, or spread their bets? Their parents will know the anxiety of trying to provide sound advice.

So how much do the subjects you study at school really have a bearing on your later life? If you want to enter a selective university, the answer is often a lot.

Admissions teams have a responsibility to accept only the students they believe are prepared for the rigours that will follow. Whether it’s to study Physics, Music or French, for many degrees some prior knowledge is vital, as are specific skills.

Yet in a recent survey of hundreds of Year 10s conducted by the Russell Group, pupils consistently ranked choosing the right subjects as less important for getting into university than other factors. Almost all placed it beneath securing the necessary grades, writing a strong personal statement and giving a good interview. The survey also showed that pupils at independent schools are much more likely than their peers in comprehensives to aspire to university. This means that better off pupils are already choosing their A Level subjects with an eye to their eventual degree.

That these young people appear to be on a clearer trajectory to higher education is no surprise. No matter how much teachers strive to provide the best possible careers advice to all pupils, it is extremely difficult to replicate the support and exposure afforded to those in better off homes.

These young people tend to grow up in households where selective universities are not something that is a remote possibility, but a rite of passage. Where the skills needed to navigate our education system successfully are passed between generations and absorbed by osmosis, and where the phrase “PPE at Oxford” requires no further explanation.

By contrast, research by the Sutton Trust found bright but disadvantaged A Level students to be only half as likely as their wealthier classmates to be taking subjects considered to provide access to good universities. A teacher in a deprived part of the country recently told one of my team about a gifted pupil whose dreams of getting on to a marine biology degree were scuppered because no one had advised her that a BTEC in health and social care was the wrong stepping-stone for this particular aim. Too often, he says, he has seen talented pupils set back by a wrong or absent steer.

If we want to boost social mobility, we need to correct such information imbalances. Tackling the inequalities that affect the life chances of young people has many facets, from raising aspiration to ensuring all pupils receive a quality education. Achieving greater parity in the advice they can access matters greatly too.

The Russell Group, representing 24 leading universities, is therefore launching renewed guidance on subject choice. Our new Informed Choices website will be accessible to all pupils and their parents. Individuals will be able to select different degrees to see which subjects they may need to study first. And they can input countless A Level combinations to understand which university courses are then opened up. In a few clicks, anyone considering university can build up a rich and personalised picture of the routes they might take.

In moving to the new website, we will no longer publish a list of so-called “facilitating subjects”. These have been the subjects deemed to open most doors at our universities, because of the large number of degrees for which they are considered essential preparation. The list was put together particularly to help pupils who wanted to go to university but weren’t yet sure of which degree to take. And to provide clear advice to those who might not otherwise receive it.

Our new, more sophisticated digital tool will do the same thing, but in a different way. Dispensing with facilitating subjects will also help avoid the problem of misinterpretation. I sometimes hear it suggested that every student entering a Russell Group university must have studied at least one of these subjects, or indeed only them. We have always been clear that this is not the case. Our new approach makes this clearer still.

Universities, like many employers, value a rounded education. If, for example, a budding young scientist has met their course’s requirements by taking Biology and Maths A Levels, why shouldn’t they vary their experience with a language or an arts subject? Academic versatility can only be a good thing in a world where we will all be living and working longer, and where more of us are likely to change our careers and directions along the way, as I have.

What matters is that pupils – all pupils, of all backgrounds – are able to explore their options carefully and make subject choices that are well-informed.

Previously published by the Independent.

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