The relationship between A-level subject choice and league table score of university attended: the ‘facilitating’, the ‘less suitable’, and the counter-intuitive
By Catherine Dilnot, UCL Institute of Education
As the school exam season gets under way, English 18-year-olds hoping to go to a selective university will typically be taking papers in only three A-level subjects, chosen two years earlier from scores of possible subjects approved nationally, although in practice from the somewhat smaller number offered by their school or 16-18 college. This early specialism in so few subjects can have long-term consequences.
For many UK degree courses particular A-levels will be required – for example biology and chemistry for medicine. But many others don’t have subject pre-requisites, including popular degrees like business and law. So whether a sixteen year old isn’t yet sure what they want to do at university, or has an idea but wants to do a course without pre-requisites, it’s difficult for them to know which subjects to choose. The question then is whether some of the large number of A-level subjects available are more helpful than others in getting them to the university of their choice. Recent reforms have reduced the number of A-level courses approved for teaching in English schools from over 90 to 60, but it is still a bewildering array, both for students choosing, and for schools and colleges deciding what subset to provide.
One important reason that subject choice matters is because we know the sorts of A-levels chosen by 16-year-olds vary by socio-economic background. And while the number of young people going to highly selective university from low SES backgrounds has increased over recent years, UCAS figures for 2017 show that an 18-year-old in the top SES quintile is ten times as likely to attend than someone at the bottom. It’s clear that most of this gap is a result of differential prior attainment, but evidence on whether some subjects are helpful for entry to highly selective university could help chip away at the SES gap.
In the UK, as in most other developed countries, the substantial increase in participation in higher education observed during the past three decades, has been accompanied by an increase in inequality in access. Indeed, the rate of participation of those coming from more affluent families grew much more than that of those coming from poorer backgrounds. Coupled with the substantial raise in the returns to higher education, this generated a significant exacerbation of within generation inequality.
Since the late 90s’ the UK has been trying to reverse this trend not just through the institution of loans and grants for students from low income families, but also through action aimed at removing some relevant non-financial barriers, namely aspirational ones. The Widening Participation (WP) policy, started in 1998, today receives over 350 million pounds per year of public funds to inspire youths from low socio economic background to go to university. My recent study evaluates the effectiveness of this policy among students who were in high school between 2004 and 2008.
My findings show that the WP policy succeeded in raising the aspirations of students eligible for the programme, and also positively impacted their likeliness to stay on at school. But this did not translate into an increase in college enrollment, except for those from the most affluent families.