Fewer students take English and humanities subjects at A-level, figures reveal

'English is hugely valuable in all sorts of jobs. The decline in uptake is really worrying'

Eleanor Busby
Education Correspondent
Thursday 24 May 2018 21:28 BST
Fewer students are taking A-level exams in English this summer, figures reveal
Fewer students are taking A-level exams in English this summer, figures reveal (Rex)

Students are turning away from English and humanities at A-level following major reforms and the government’s narrowing focus on science and maths, education unions have warned.

Figures from exams regulator Ofqual show a “worrying” decline in the number of students choosing to study English, geography, history and religious studies at A-level, unions said

Meanwhile, the popularity of modern foreign languages and the arts among students taking their A-levels this summer has continued to decline, the provisional figures showed.

The uptake of German by students has fallen by 16 per cent, in geography it has dropped by 11 per cent and in religious studies it has declined by 23 per cent, the official statistics revealed.

And over two years, entries for A-level English have dropped by 14 per cent – from 78,795 in 2016 to 67,865 this year.

Suzanne O’Farrell, an assessment specialist at the Association of School and College Leaders, told The Independent: “English is hugely valuable in all sorts of jobs. The trend is really worrying.”

The government’s focus on improving the take-up of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (Stem) subjects could have played a part as figures show sciences and maths did not suffer the same fate at A-level.

The number of entries in computing – one of the government’s flagship subjects – jumped by 26 per cent from 7,710 in 2017 to 9,685 this year. And uptake of the maths A-level rose by 3 per cent.

Unions say the government’s exam reforms – such as the introduction of the tougher English GCSE– may also have deterred some students from studying English in sixth-form.

Jill Stokoe, a policy advisor at the National Education Union, told The Independent: “I think part of it is the drive towards Stem.

“With English, history and geography, it could be that the difficulty of the new GCSE specification has put people off at A-level.”

And reforms – which mean AS levels no longer count towards final grades – are likely to have led to fewer students taking these subjects in Year 12 and then deciding to take them onto A-level.

Figures show that entries for AS levels have fallen by almost 60 per cent this year – from 659,880 to 269,090 – continuing a trend triggered by the decoupling of AS levels from A-levels.

Unions are also concerned that creative arts and technology subjects are being squeezed out at GCSE – which they said is having a knock-on effect at A-level.

Fewer pupils have been entered into GCSE subjects that are not included in the English Baccalaureate (EBacc) – which is a measure that judges schools on the number of students that take up maths, English and science, a foreign language and either history or geography.

The number of entries to non-EBacc subjects fell by 13 per cent this year. And in performing/expressive arts, entries among GCSE students plummeted by 40 per cent.

Paul Whiteman, general secretary of the school headteachers’ union (NAHT), said: “Students’ experiences of a narrower curriculum at GCSE is now having an impact on their sixth form studies.”

He added: “It is now impossible to argue that the EBacc measure is not having a narrowing effect on young people’s choices at GCSE.

“These reforms put schools in an impossible situation where they must reduce the opportunities they offer to pupils in order to satisfy an arbitrary government target.”

A Department for Education spokesperson said: “The Government has worked with employers to reform GCSEs and make them gold-standard qualifications. They will prepare pupils for future success and help deliver the skills Britain needs to be fit for the future. Entries to the core academic EBacc subjects have increased, with over 4 million of these exams being taken this year, including significant increases to those taking the individual sciences.

They added: "These subjects give pupils the best foundation to progress into further education and employment. Thanks to our reforms and the hard work of teachers, academic standards are rising with 1.9 million more children in good or outstanding schools than in 2010.”

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