Narrowing our focus in education leads us down a blind alley

Because of funding squeezes, experts are warning that some subjects have started to virtually disappear from our school curriculum

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After graduation, two friends who’d been on our English literature course announced they’d made a very big mistake. After years of studying medieval literature, rowing about cultural theory in poky offices and ploughing through five novels a week, both of them admitted that what they really wanted to do was far more hands on: they wanted to be doctors.

Rather than a sudden change of heart during the stress of finals, both said they’d actually felt the same way since they had started their A-levels. The problem was that, with the opportunity to study only three or four subjects, they’d felt railroaded into making a snap decision and thought medicine was only for students who had studied triple science at GCSE. Now they were preparing for years more study to make up for their lack of a broad education.

Today’s students – a quarter of a million pick up their A-level results this morning – may feel the same way about their narrow horizons. Worryingly, tomorrow’s are likely to find themselves even more stunted.

Mark Dawe, chief executive of the OCR exam board, warns that several subjects have virtually disappeared from the school curriculum because of funding squeezes. And an increasing number of schools and sixth-form colleges are capping pupils’ A-levels at three instead of four, because the Government focus is being placed on early years education, to the detriment of GCSE and A-level funding provision.

Aside from the competitive advantage this gives to already advantaged children at private schools, limiting choices also limits personal possibility.

Few children know at just 16 what job they’d like – let alone what they’d actually be suited for in the workplace. Early subject choices force children down a path that can be difficult to re-tread later. Other European countries baulk at such practices: Norwegian post-16 education involves study of maths, science and English, as well as other subjects, meaning they have a far better grounding in core skills than many Brits. American universities allow students to take many modules across a range of disciplines, before settling on a “major”, offering far more opportunity to dabble and learn before choosing a route for life. Early specialisation is one of the reasons that UK schools are tumbling down global rankings.

The result for Britain is a population that struggles with breadth of understanding. Adult numeracy and literacy rates are far lower than they should be, and the Confederation of British Industry and British Council have both warned of an “alarming shortage” of foreign language skills. No wonder – but without languages, the opportunity to live abroad shrinks along with your possible life choices.

There’s a deeper sadness: a fourth AS-level was often an opportunity for students to take a subject that wasn’t relevant to their mooted degree choice. We are large, we contain multitudes: the sum of our interests doesn’t lie solely in our marketability.

An art AS-level wasn’t necessary for me to become a writer. But I can talk you through a Cy Twombly canvas. And now, there are two newly trained doctors who recognise the fallibility of the body in both science, and literature.