A levels see worrying decline in English...

Written by: Chris Parr | Published:
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There is concern at the significant decline in the number of students taking English at A level and the blame is being placed on the reformed GCSE curriculum. Chris Parr reports

This year, significantly fewer students took A levels in English than last year. In fact, there was a 13 per cent decline in the number of entries this year compared with 2018’s cohort – and it is not the first time numbers have fallen.

According to figures from the Joint Council for Qualifications (JCQ), the body which represents the exam boards, the trend can be traced back several years.

The number of students in England taking A levels in English subjects (language, literature, and combined) fell from 78,521 in 2016 to 66,923 in 2018 – a drop of more than 11,500. This represents a 25 per cent decrease in entries over that three-year period.

The fall has prompted a considerable amount of concern among educationalists. On the eve of this year’s A level results, Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, called for “urgent action” to address what he termed an “alarming decline in the take-up of A level English”.

He raised concerns that students were being put off the subject by the reforms to GCSE English qualifications.

This year’s cohort of A level students was the first who took the new-look GCSEs, which were introduced in 2015 and were designed to be more rigorous and stretching. But ASCL, and others, are concerned that the exams – which are heavily weighted in school performance tables – are now unattractive to students.

According to one anonymous assistant headteacher, quoted by the association: “GCSE English language is sucking the joy out of the study of how we communicate: the power and beauty in words. English literature favours those with excellent memories; it has reduced our most magnificent pieces of writing to a collection of quotations.”

Mr Barton queried whether it was right that having high aspirations for students should equate to “turning exams into a joyless slog”.

He added: “We are concerned that the current GCSE specifications are failing to encourage a love of English in young people and this year’s entries at A level appear to confirm our fears.

“We must address this decline swiftly because A level English is such an important subject, providing a path to many courses and careers, including the future English teachers we will need in our schools and colleges. We urge the Department for Education, Ofqual and the exam boards to join with us in reviewing the current situation.”

Mary Curnock Cook, formerly chief executive of UCAS, has looked in detail at the number of entries for A level courses this year. In a blog for the Higher Education Policy Institute – co-authored with Christoffer Fogtdal, a consultant with the Cairneagle Associates education consultancy – she found that the downward trend in English was not evident in other popular arts and humanities subjects (HEPI, 2019).

“Some have attributed this trend to the new (English) GCSE being clunky and off-putting,” the authors wrote, acknowledging ASCL’s standpoint

“Others think the mood music that constantly reinforces the value of STEM subjects and devalues arts and humanities is at play.

“But other arts and humanities subjects haven’t been so affected and the increase in STEM subjects doesn’t match the decline in English. Between 2016 and 2019, STEM share of entries has increased from 35 per cent to 37.1 per cent – a proportional increase of six per cent. Over the same period, the share of entries for the English A level subjects has declined from 10.1 per cent to 7.9 per cent – a proportional decline of
22 per cent, so that just doesn’t compute.”

Speaking to SecEd, Ms Curnock Cook said that, looking at figures for England, the English subjects’ share of entries has fallen from nine per cent in 2018 to eight per cent in 2019 – a figure which, when you look at the wider trends in A level subject choice, represents an 11 per cent drop in total “market share”.

She explained: “The bigger question is whether a three A level curriculum is now too narrow to accommodate students who want to respond to the clarion calls for more STEM subjects, but can only do that at the expense of subjects like English which remain critically important to society and the economy.”

The statistics appear to bear out Ms Curnock Cook’s concerns. Since 2010, there has been a significant shift at A level away from arts and humanities subjects towards maths and science.

According to analysis by ASCL, entries in A level maths, physics and chemistry have increased by about a quarter over that period, and in further maths by 35 per cent – although there was a slight dip in maths entries this year.

Drama, music and media/film/television studies have seen steep declines in entries, as has design and technology, which has seen entries fall by more than 40 per cent. Modern foreign languages have also taken a hit, with 6,873 fewer entries in French and German combined in 2018 compared with 2010.

According to ASCL, there are several factors behind changes to entry patterns: “Government policy has marginalised creative arts subjects in GCSE performance tables meaning that fewer students are studying them at this stage, while students are deterred from modern foreign languages by the perception that these subjects are graded severely.

“In addition, government funding cuts make it more difficult for schools and colleges to sustain courses with relatively small numbers of students, making arts and languages particularly vulnerable to reductions in courses.”

A spokesperson for the Department for Education said it that “English remains one of the most popular subjects”. She added: “We are confident that the reformed GCSEs in English are better preparing pupils for further study at A level.”

  • Chris Parr is a freelance journalist.

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