Familiar favourites

Today's pupils prefer the same subjects as their Sixties forebears, despite 25 years of change. By Judith Judd
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Governments come and governments go, but the subjects that pupils enjoy remain remarkably similar. In 1971, research by the Schools Council and the University of Exeter compiled a league table of pupils' favourite subjects. Some 25 years later, despite the big changes introduced by the national curriculum, researchers have found that little has changed.

Then crafts topped the list. Now the favourite is its modern equivalent, technology. Other subjects remain in much the same order. The most interesting change is in the position of maths and science. Maths is creeping up the table at the expense of science.

Researchers from Exeter University sent questionnaires to 2,500 pupils, aged 11 to 16. Their study, sponsored by the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation and the Paul Hamlyn Foundation and carried out by Malcolm Ross and Maria Kamba, looked mainly at the state of arts subjects in five secondary schools. It also examined reasons for the relative popularity of different subjects.

Maths, it suggests, is growing in popularity because new methods of teaching the subject mean that students are being asked to think more for themselves and to take part in practical activities. By contrast, the introduction of the science national curriculum means that pupils have to absorb more facts than in the past and there is less time for them to carry out their own investigations. "Physics in particular", states the report, "seems to suffer from being too theoretical and allowing too little scope for creative participation - a role being increasingly taken over by technology."

The study includes computing, craft, design and technology, media studies, technology and textiles under the "technology" umbrella.

The big success story of the past 25 years is drama, a newcomer to the curriculum in the 1960s. "The subject the national curriculum forgot achieves a remarkable profile," says the study. Though it is not a compulsory national curriculum subject, students believe that it is both enjoyable and important. It is markedly better taught and more interesting than in 1971. Drama teachers have tapped into the concerns of young people and have given them opportunities to express themselves.

The most recent addition to the arts curriculum, dance, is liked by girls, but has yet to win the support of boys. Art is less enjoyable than it was, probably because teachers are spending more time telling their pupils what to do and less allowing them to develop their own interests. Pupils also enjoy English less than they did - perhaps, teachers suggest, because there is more emphasis on set texts and grammar and less on reading for pleasure and personal writing. Music remains the weakest of the arts. Overall, the arts remain the most popular subject group in the curriculum.

"Either student priorities are immune to all attempts to reconstruct the curriculum, or the reforms of the past 25 years have not been as radical as might have been supposed," the report states.

Yet despite pupils' enthusiasm, the arts in schools are in danger because they are outside the national curriculum, the study argues. The schools in the study are all committed to the arts but others, for example those without a specialist drama teacher, may be in a very different position.

Schools are finding it increasingly difficulty to offer arts options to students on GCSE courses. The popularity of the arts declines among 14- to 16-year-olds as pupils feel under pressure to sign up for academic and vocational courses. Drama and dance, the study argues, should become national curriculum subjects. "Schools are in danger of becoming factories. The new ethos of schooling is not only alien to the arts but very possibly detrimental to the personal, spiritual, cultural and social development of children and to the personal and professional well-being of teachers".

1971 1996


1 Crafts 74.0 2 PE 67.0

3 English 53.0

4 Science 50.0

5 Art 43.0

6 Drama 39.5

7 Maths 36.0

8 History 30.0

9 Geography 28.0

10 Foreign Languages 27.0

11 Music 22.0

1 Technology 74.5 2 PE 68.0

3 English 57.0

4 Maths 43.5

5 Art 42.0

6 Science 40.0

7 Drama 36.5

8 Geography 25.5

9 History 23.0

10 Foreign Languages 19.0

11 Music 15.0