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English A-level suffers collapse in student numbers as teachers blame tougher GCSEs

The Telegraph logo The Telegraph 13/08/2019 Camilla Turner

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(Video by: Press Association)

English A-level is set for its biggest drop in students in 20 years as headteachers call for an inquiry into whether GCSE reforms are killing the subject.

The number of students taking the subject has plummeted by 13 per cent since last year, according to provisional data published by the exams watchdog Ofqual.

Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, described it as “alarming” and urged ministers to take “urgent action”.

English remains one of the most popular A-level subjects, but the drop from 67,865 to 58,870 is the most drastic year-on-year fall since 2000, when the Joint Council for Qualification’s (JCQ) records began.

a group of people in a room: The number of students taking English A Level has plummeted by 13 per cent since last year - PA © Provided by Telegraph Media Group Limited The number of students taking English A Level has plummeted by 13 per cent since last year - PA Mr Barton said the new, more rigorous English GCSEs, which were introduced three years ago, are to blame for putting students off the subject.

“It is right that we should have the highest aspirations for all our students, but this should not equate to turning exams into a joyless slog,” Mr Barton said.

“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.”

In the reformed English Language and English Literature GCSEs, coursework has been axed and content has been “toughened up” in a bid to raise standards.  

Mr Barton is urging ministers, Ofqual and the exam boards to act “swiftly” and launch a review into the subject’s decline.   

Experts have told The Daily Telegraph that while English used to be viewed as one of the most prestigious and intellectual A-levels, students now favour subjects which they think will lead them on to a well-paid job.  

File: Students sit their GCSE mock exams at Brighton College in Brighton, East Sussex. © Press Association File: Students sit their GCSE mock exams at Brighton College in Brighton, East Sussex.

Barnaby Lenon, chair of the Independent Schools Council, said that higher university tuition fees have led to students wanting to get a “good return on their investment”.

He explained that there had been s “shift” towards subjects which have more vocational use, and this has an impact on students' choice of university degree as well as their A-levels.  

Mr Lenon, a former headmaster at the £41,775-a-year Harrow School, said that parents must “disabuse children of the notion” that subjects like English have no value in the workplace as this is “simply untrue”.

“Many of the highest paid, most interesting people in the country studied English A-level and went to university to read a subject without much practical application, then found themselves in great demand in the market place,” Mr Lenon said. 

"My children studied philosophy and classics but both found themselves highly employable. "  

Gallery: World's top 50 universities of 2020 (Photo Services)

Ministers have announced a string of measures to boost the number of students taking science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) subjects, including a cash incentive of up to £2,400 for every extra student that takes maths in the sixth form.  

A-levels in sciences and maths have been steadily rising in popularity, JCQ data shows. The number of students taking physics and chemistry A-levels in 2018 were both up 3.4 per cent on the year before, while biology was up 3.1 per cent and maths was up 2.5 per cent. 

Professor Robert Eaglestone, a member of the English Association which promotes the study of literature, said that academics were “anxious” about the subject’s decline.  

“Universities have been aware in a decrease of application for English over the past two or three years,” he said.

“The key figure is almost every year 14.5 per cent of A-level English students go on to do English at university. Previous ministers have been very down on humanities and we think there is a turn to Stem subjects.”

A Department for Education spokesperson: “It is positive to see an increase in the uptake of Stem subjects at A level in recent years, reflecting the rise in demand for people with skills in these areas, whilst English remains one of the most popular subjects.  

“We are confident that the reformed GCSEs in English are better preparing pupils for further study at A level.”

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