Thousands of pupils are dropping subjects such as music, the arts and economics at A level because of confusion over the list of “facilitating subjects” drawn up by some of the country’s top universities.
The Russell Group, which includes Oxford and Cambridge, published a list of the best subject combinations for university courses two years ago to help young people make informed decisions about which A levels to take in order to get onto degree courses.
However, the head of one of the top grammar schools in the country claims the list is now affecting student choice, with many dropping all but the most academic options.
Schools are also angry that facilitating subjects have been included in the performance tables without prior warning.
In an open letter to the Russell Group, published on the school’s website, Hilda Clarke, head of Tiffin School in Kingston-upon-Thames, said the universities had “inadvertently become a pawn in some kind of political agenda”.
Ms Clarke is concerned that the list of facilitating subjects is restricted to maths, English literature, physics, biology, chemistry, geography, history, and languages. According to the Russell Group, other subjects such as music, religious studies, economics, philosophy, politics or art, may be considered if the applicant offers two facilitating subjects.
However, recent league tables included information about schools in which students had studied three facilitating subjects.
In her letter, Ms Clarke said: “You (the Russell Group) clearly stated that you expected students to have TWO facilitating subjects as part of a portfolio of A levels; yet the league tables list the proportion of students gaining AAB or higher in THREE facilitating subjects. Did you agree to this? And, more to the point, do you agree with this? If you do, then we urgently require an explanation from you as to how the non-facilitating subjects can be sustained.”
At Tiffin School, 44 per cent of students gained AAB in three facilitating subjects, but more than 85 per cent gain places at Russell Group universities. Ms Clarke added: “Indeed, several of our past students now studying at Oxford and Cambridge only took one of your facilitating subjects at A level.
“Unless the Russell Group clarifies the issue, we will be seeing an irreversible decline in non-facilitating subjects at A level and, by extension, the take-up of these subjects at degree level and beyond.
“It is imperative that you act now. We are afraid that this is a situation of the Russell Group’s making and that, unless you speak out strongly, clearly articulating … that taking three facilitating subjects is not the measure of students’ suitability for your universities, you will have presided over the death of these enriching subjects in schools, ultimately depriving a generation of this country’s young people a balanced, meaningful and fulfilling experience in their most formative years.”
Meanwhile, Marion Gibbs, headteacher of James Allen’s Girls’ School in south London, is also angry at the recent “vilification” of schools by the media and politicians for “failing” the facilitating subjects league table target.
Writing in her SecEd column this week, she states: “Nowhere had it ever been mentioned that achieving three of these A level subjects was a prerequisite for entrance at any university and no-one had advised (us) that schools were to be measured and found wanting according to these new criteria.
“I hope that many schools will stick with a broad curriculum, well-matched to the talents and interests of their pupils – but if this is at the cost of being denounced in the press and being labelled ‘failing’, how many will have the courage to do so?”
The concerns come alongside existing fears for the future of some subjects because of the narrow English Baccalaureate. Several subject associations have already reported teacher redundancies, reduced timetable time and declining interest from students as school reorganise to focus more on the five EBacc areas.
Rosemary Rivett, executive officer for the National Association of Teachers of Religious Education, said the organisation had written to the Russell Group urging it to “set the record straight”.
She said. “The Russell Group describes religious studies as a subject which provides ‘suitable preparation for entry to university education generally’. It is not a facilitating subject because, although it is accepted as one of a combination of A levels for most courses, it is only specifically required for a few. That does not make it less academically rigorous or less valuable for study than any of the facilitating subjects.”
Lesley Butterworth, general secretary of the National Society for the Education of Art and Design, added: “We have already expressed serious concerns to the Department for Education about the potential decline of ‘non-facilitating’ subjects at A level of which art and design is one. The term ‘facilitating subjects’ has disruptive consequences for students’ A level and degree choices.”
Dr Wendy Piatt, the Russell Group’s director general, to whom Ms Clarke’s letter was addressed, said she would respond to the school. She added that the Group believed that taking two facilitating subjects out of three was “a smart way for students to keep their university options wide open”.