One week you're arguing over the merits of the Tarantino movie, Pulp Fiction; the next, you're trying to weigh up the evidence about global warming, or deciding whether to support the globalisation protesters. Then you might move on to some mathematics, and some more science. Is there life on Mars? To what extent is human intelligence genetically determined?
Welcome to general studies A-level, a subject taken by almost 88,000 pupils this summer and regarded by many heads and teachers as a brilliant way to make their pupils think. Often taken as a fourth A-level, it makes fewer demands on pupils in terms of time (usually one hour a week at the most), and is an antidote to the narrowly academic English curriculum.
"It's been a very good way of broadening sixth-formers' education," says Professor Susan Bassnett, pro vice chancellor of Warwick University, whose three daughters took the subject at school. "The courses are pretty serious. Students study political, philosophical and ethical issues, as well as continuing with maths and science. It's a good introduction to citizenship. I don't understand why so many universities disregard it, and I can't think why the Government didn't see this as the way to broaden the sixth- form curriculum, instead of bringing in the new AS-levels."
Professor Bassnett has some important supporters. John Dunford, general secretary of the Secondary Heads Association, says he has been wondering for years why the better universities have such a cavalier attitude towards general studies. "It tests a wide range of skills and knowledge which are useful not only in university, but in other walks of life," he says. "I am very disappointed that ministers didn't take general studies more into account when they were planning reforms to sixth-form studies."
The subject has been going for years. Robert Godber, head of Wath- on- Dearne comprehensive in Yorkshire, who taught politics to William Hague, did general studies in 1960. Then, as now, it was seen as a way of counteracting the emphasis on memorising a body of knowledge, rather than on making connections between disciplines and forming judgements based on values and the available evidence.
According to Mr Godber, "It's a way of encouraging an awareness of what's going on in politics, current affairs and the arts. You're looking for the ability to reason and to argue a case cogently, deploying the information you've got."
Universities differ in their treatment of general studies. Some won't consider it at all as an entry qualification. One of these is Warwick, Susan Bassnett's institution. It bases its A-level offers on three specialist A-levels. "For many years it has not been held in the same high esteem as other A-levels," explains Professor Stuart Palmer, Warwick's deputy vice chancellor. "There is a place, I am sure, for a qualification of this sort, but I don't think the subject has academic recognition across the system."
Like other highly regarded universities, Warwick will take general studies into account after A-level results have been published. If, for example, an applicant has slipped a grade in one of the specialist A-levels, but done well in general studies, that may make the difference between getting a place and being rejected.
Other universities leave the decision up to individual departments. So at Southampton University, the law department won't accept general studies A-level, but others will - at least in theory. The reason why some universities look down their noses at it, according to Rex Knight, Southampton's academic registrar, is that some schools take the subject much more seriously than others. They have staff devoted to teaching it, they give it a slot in the timetable and they prepare pupils for the exam. Others don't.
They simply sign the pupils up and let them sink or swim. "That means it's a bit difficult comparing one candidate with another," he says. …