Psychology – what’s it all about?

Periodically, questions are raised about the rigour and value of some A Levels, of which Pyschology is one. Most recently, Barnaby Lenon, Chairman of the Independent Schools’ Council (ISC) was reported in the Daily Mail as saying that girls who should be doing Physics are instead doing Psychology, and urges schools to persuade capable girls to choose the latter. Why? Because he says this will help to get more women into Science, Technology, Engineering & Maths (STEM) careers and, importantly, onto university courses in subjects such as Engineering and Medicine. It is of note that he at least partly absolves independent schools from his analysis although I am unconvinced by his argument. Psychology was introduced as a subject at least in part to get girls more involved in Science, a task at which it has surely excelled. Although well established in universities, it was not until the 1970s that Psychology A Level was introduced in the classroom. Today more than 50,000 students are entered for the examination each year, making it the fourth most popular A Level nationally – also the case at Bedales. And, yes, it remains popular with girls.

The ongoing mantra is that it simply is not as difficult as Maths and the Physical Sciences, with great play made of its omission by the Russell Group universities from its list of ‘facilitating subjects’ – those identified as having the greatest transferability across university degree subject areas. In fact, the Russell Group identifies Psychology as ‘useful’ in relation to a range of degree subjects, whilst a number of different assessments of the difficulty of A Level subjects place Psychology above some facilitating subjects. Survey findings in 2003 found that the majority of students regarded Psychology as both their most demanding and most interesting subject (McGuinness, 2003). In 2008, the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA) found that Psychology was comparable in terms of standards with Biology and Sociology (although with a caveat about the difficulty of comparing different subjects).

Psychology employs a research approach and methods – for example, experimental design – that is consistent with those employed in the Natural Sciences. However, Psychology A Level also requires familiarity with the less tightly controlled observational method – also associated with the Social Sciences. Consequently, it is our belief that Psychology provides a unique opportunity to explore different and sometimes conflicting schools of thought with regard to theories of knowledge and scientific method.

That Psychology A Level is a subject that faces usefully both the Natural and Social Sciences is reflected in Psychology provision at university undergraduate level. For example, the University of Cambridge Psychological and Behavioural Sciences Department stresses the ways in which the subject overlaps with and contributes to Anthropology, Archaeology, Computer Science, Linguistics, Philosophy and Sociology.

We think there is great value in a subject that may lead students down so many potentially interesting paths. When students know exactly what they want to do beyond school, it makes sense for them to study those subjects that will get them to where they need to be next. The study of Medicine, for example, calls for a major commitment to the Natural Sciences – as a third of fourth subject Psychology might be interesting and valuable, although not essential.

However, for the significant proportion of students who have not yet decided where their future interest lies, Psychology can be a very useful way in which to ensure that the Sciences are represented in their mix of A levels.

By Sarah Flavell, Head of Psychology, Bedales School

More information about the Bedales Psychology curriculum.