As a current student (AS Physics/Chemistry, AS and A2 Maths, doing A2 Physics and chemistry and the full further maths a level next year), i have to say that in this particular run of exams (all on edexcel) I have noticed very few "political" questions, with most of it being theory, however i would like to raise one or two other points....
In physics as part of unit 3 (the last of the first year), you do an option topic (edexcel only). these were originally designed to re-enforce (with some real world applications) the topics in the "core" units. these topics are:
Astrophysics (Thermal physics mostly, generally to do with black body radiation but with some rote learning of star life cycles and some understanding of fusion), the core parts for this are taught in the 2nd year
Nuclear and particle physics (a general introduction to the particles and forces in the standard model, but without the quantum parts), the core parts of this are in the first year (radioactivity) although most of it is new
Solid Materials (no one does it, its boring!) basically just hookes law and a couple bits that are also in chemistry about material strengths
Medical Physics (mostly on X-rays and ultrasound, as well as radiotherapy, MRI and other uses of radiation) Primarily based on the waves topic (2nd year) and the radioactivity topic (1st year)
Of these the most popular with schools/colleges seem to be astro- and medical physics, as the pupils will fall asleep at the mention of solid materials and run screaming at the mention of something as difficult sounding as particle physics (although this is by far the easiest! Little rote learning, just conserve everything except quark type in weak interactions), however this means that students HAVE to learn these by rote as the basic foundations are not taught till the year after.
The option topic used to be part of the second year, but it was decided that pupils would be more "engaged" if they learned some applications in the first year, and so this makes it less engaging as they understand none of the principles behind them...
Matrix mechanics by the way, earlier identified as one of the key things that students should have from an A level if they intend to do physics at uni, do not some up until the Further Maths syllabus, and due to the extra effort this requires (doing the Maths A level in 1 year rather than 2) many students will not get this far unless they wish to do pure maths later in life.
I would agree with the above poster that being able to derive equations by instinct does make physics and many parts of maths alot easier, one of my fellow students who I often help cannot do this, and suffers as a result, however there is little attempt to teach this in the modern curriculum.
The other problem with the education system is that work designed to encourage brighter students is often not recognised. I am yet to meet a single person outside of my secondary school (which was a private school) who has any idea what an FSMQ is (a maths qualification between GCSE and AS, designed to allow bright GCSE students to do some more work without causing too much worry to the admin staff when they do AS levels, contains most of the core subjects for the AS level), this includes the careers advisors, the maths teachers at my current college (although for one of them it is not unexpected as I don't believe he could tell his arse from his elbow..), in fact anyone at my current college, any of the places I apply for part time work or work experience (which includes some technology companies), or indeed a Cambridge admissions tutor at a recent conference.
I have been told many times on my way thorugh the current system that i could not be given extension work, the first was in primary school (year 5) where after being moved down previously due to a change in education policy (no child left behind, no child allowed ahead either), i was told that extension material could not be given "as the school did not have enough money to provide anything beyond the year 6 curriculum when Michael moves to the next year". This then resulted in me being constantly ahead of the class, and so I could easily doss about during lessons, occasionally stopping to help some of my slower classmates along in the hope of reaching something which I could not do easily. This did not happen until last year, by which point actually having to learn in school was such a novel experience that I struggled for a while because of it. To those that say that this is because I did not find extension material for myself, I will only say that I had enough understanding of particle physics, radioactivity and electricity midway through secondary school to have passed the relevant sections of the course this year, and my mechanics wasnt too far behind. The problem came when the areas of maths that got studied were different enough from what had come before that I had not encountered them except in vague mentions and so had not been interested enough to read up on them (calculus for those that are wondering).
I have no idea where this is going, (hence the lack of any essay subject in the ones that i am doing) so will just end it now....