Which are the most difficult subjects at GCSE?

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Answer? Law and astronomy, although there are very few entries each year. The much bigger issue is that GCSEs in modern foreign languages are graded more severely than other subjects.

Just before Christmas, Ofqual published a set of very interesting working papers about inter-subject comparability and subject difficulty in GCSEs and A levels. The conclusion is unequivocal. Grades in some subjects are higher (or lower) than in others.

In this blog, we look at the difficulty of different subjects at GCSE as we’ve written about A levels previously. As some astute readers noted in response to that blog, strictly speaking what we are actually discussing is severity of grading rather than subject difficulty. Some subjects are graded more (or less) severely than others.

Let’s begin by grabbing some data. We use results in full course GCSEs entered by all pupils who reached the end of Key Stage 4 nationally in 2015 in all institutions including independent schools, special schools and alternative provision. A pupil’s first entry is used in cases where a subject has been entered more than once.

Assigning grades on the basis of latent ability

Underlying our analysis is a statistical model that assumes that grades in GCSEs are awarded on the basis of both the ability of pupils and the difficulty of each subject. As we wish to compare different subjects, we assume that the measure of ability does not vary between subjects but the level of difficulty does.

A measure of each pupil’s latent ability is estimated from the data. This scale can then be sliced up into grades. Chart 1 shows the cut-points of our notional ability scale for a subject of average difficulty. This suggests, as we have discussed previously, that intervals between grades are not equal. In other words, the difference between G and F is not the same as the difference between B and A.

Chart 1: GCSE grade cut-points on the latent ability scale
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Variation in difficulty between subjects

Table 1 below presents all subjects with at least two thousand entrants amongst the 2015 national KS4 cohort in ascending order of difficulty (or grade severity, if you prefer).

Pupils entered for Polish, Chinese, Arabic, Italian, Urdu and art & design tend to achieve better grades in those subjects than might be expected from their latent ability. This makes sense: these subjects tend to be entered by pupils who are either native speakers or who have an aptitude for art & design. In other words, they tend to be more self-selecting than in other subjects and so it is little surprise that results tend to be higher. I very much doubt that Polish would remain the least severely graded subject if large numbers of pupils who were not Polish started to enter it.

By contrast, entries in law, astronomy, applied engineering, general studies and German tend to be more severely graded. Perhaps more worrying is the difficulty associated with the three most common modern foreign languages taught in schools: French, German and Spanish.
The scale on which subjects are ranked in Table 1 is not particularly meaningful so Chart 2 shows what it means in practice for a selection of subjects. Here we show the difference in percentages of A*-C and A*-A grades awarded compared to a subject of average difficulty.

Chart 2: Differences in percentages of A*-C and A*-A grades awarded compared to a subject of average difficulty

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So what?

For a start, Ofqual deserves credit for launching this debate. But then we have to ask whether we should have consistency of grading between subjects. Is it even technically feasible? If we cannot have a perfect balance between subjects is there anything we could do to get a bit closer?

Even if we “fix” the current inconsistency between subjects, there is no guarantee that grades won’t diverge again in the future. Perhaps French used to be no more severely graded than maths. The difference we see today may be the product of changes in teaching and attitudes.

Or should we just live with inconsistency? If so, we have to understand the consequences. Schools’ curriculum choices influence their performance measures. At present the more that schools offer MFL the more they are effectively being penalised.

Table 1: Estimated GCSE subject difficulty, pupils reaching the end of KS4 in 2015

Subject Change in log-odds of higher grade compared to maths Entries
Polish 5.24 3768
Chinese 2.49 3153
Art & Design (Photography) 1.51 22006
Arabic 1.50 3035
Italian 1.45 3854
Urdu 1.21 4087
Art & Design (Textiles) 0.84 6749
Art & Design (Fine Art) 0.64 50999
Art & Design 0.62 86018
Expressive Arts & Performance Studies 0.48 3151
D&T Textiles Technology 0.47 24108
Art & Design (Graphics) 0.45 6874
D&T Food Technology 0.30 38263
Film Studies 0.30 6209
Media/Film/TV Studies 0.26 51402
Home Economics: Child Development 0.26 18136
Performing Arts 0.21 5937
Religious Studies 0.11 267864
English Literature 0.06 405670
Drama & Theatre Studies 0.06 70655
English Language & Literature 0.06 64535
Mathematics 0.00 542020
Physical Education/Sports Studies 0.01 110391
Social Science: Citizenship -0.02 20731
Information & Communications Technology -0.02 99150
English Language -0.07 298688
Physics -0.12 122528
Health & Social Care -0.12 7079
Chemistry -0.13 123333
Latin -0.13 8337
D&T Resistant Materials -0.14 50826
Dance -0.15 11953
Biology -0.17 126042
Home Economics: Food -0.22 8628
Methods in Mathematics -0.34 12198
Office Technology -0.41 13340
Applications of Mathematics -0.43 12097
Sociology -0.43 21274
D&T Electronic Products -0.44 7862
Science (Core) -0.45 366238
D&T Product Design -0.48 37750
Music -0.49 43502
Additional Science -0.53 326679
Statistics -0.57 51647
Geography -0.57 210919
History -0.63 228569
Business Studies -0.72 73819
D&T Graphic Products -0.73 31708
D&T Systems & Control -0.85 2969
Spanish -0.99 84846
Classical Civilisation -1.10 3971
Psychology -1.21 15897
Computer Studies/Computing -1.28 33378
Economics -1.29 9414
French -1.34 150702
Humanities: Single -1.35 8326
German -1.44 52621
General Studies -1.71 9302
Applied Engineering -1.88 6257
Astronomy -2.46 2300
Law -2.47 2196
By | 2017-03-03T09:50:09+00:00 February 23rd, 2016|Exams and assessment|

About the Author:

Dave Thomson is Chief Statistician at FFT with over fifteen years’ experience working with educational attainment data to raise attainment in local government, higher education and the commercial sector. His current research interests include linking education and workplace datasets to improve estimates of adult attainment and study the impact of education on employment and benefits outcomes.

2 Comments

  1. Susan October 10, 2016 at 4:50 pm - Reply

    Nice piece. I’d like to know what the most useful GCSEs are for life after school. I.e the subjects that most people use in their jobs and daily lives.

    • ag November 13, 2017 at 7:22 pm - Reply

      In my personal unbiased opinion:
      Maths (not so much use of the content but how well regarded a high grade is)
      English Lit/Lang (mainly writing a structured essay, which is a useful skill)
      Business Studies (a lot of very useful content in the course itself, but it isn’t exhaustive. It’s also poorly regarded)
      Physics (if you get an engineering or tech job, this could be very helpful)

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