I’ve been watching with considerable dismay as the take-up of A level entries for English subjects declines.
Research by the influential English and Media Centre seems to lay the blame at the door of dissatisfaction with the over-mechanised GCSE specifications, putting many students off the much more exciting courses at the next level.
But we must also consider the potentially more toxic combination of over-promoting science, technology, engineering and mathematics (Stem) subjects as vital to the economy and the role of university admissions in directing students onto higher education courses. Vital to the economy they may be – but they’re not exclusively so.
I had been dismayed, too, at the Russell Group's list of facilitating subjects, laying out combinations of subjects to be taken by A-level students. In practice, this had given the group an overinfluential role as unofficial gatekeepers to the professions. If you didn’t study the subjects they promoted, you didn’t get onto their prestigious courses – and you didn't get on to the career pathways with the most kudos and cash attached either.
It was not surprising to see some rejoicing when just last week the list was ditched.
Unfortunately, the Russell Group cannot leave well alone. Its new website of Informed Choices seems just as constricting. The polarisation of humanities/arts vs Stem is even more pronounced. While it would seem sensible for aspiring medics to study chemistry and biology, must they also opt for a mathematical or further scientific choice? And must hopeful applicants for English degrees confine themselves to history, religious studies and a language?
For me, the most frustrating aspect of the Russell Group’s high-handed approach is that it runs counter to the experience of a number of my students. Their career successes show that not only is it possible to combine arts, humanities and science or mathematics-based subjects, it’s desirable. What we need is not the narrowing specialisms that are rooted in post-GCSE choices aged 16 but the Renaissance portfolio of contrasting and complementary disciplines to enable graduates to adapt to a rapidly changing world – and thrive.
Career paths for English literature A-level students: the reality check
For those who still believe that following the dictates of a list of facilitating subjects or being glued to an Informed Choices website are the only ways to deliver their dreams, here are 10 careers that a number of my students who took A-level English literature now follow:
- Teacher of English to children of all stages
- Working for publishers
- Writing bestselling novels
- Acting with prestigious companies such as the Royal Shakespeare Company – or starting their own companies
- Working as front of house and managing volunteers with the RSC
- Supporting a local MP’s campaign and becoming chief press officer for a key government department
- Working at the BBC and writing podcasts for such programmes such as Blue Planet
Other students whom I didn’t teach personally at A level but who did English literature have gone on to careers in the Arts Council and in coding at the Met Office. And I have to admit I neglected to mention the student who gave up on his A levels (including English literature) to follow a career in county cricket and who ended up on the coaching staff of the England Test team…but then you can’t win ’em all.
The stories behind these glittering successes are much more varied than the raw job titles indicate. Taking A levels in literature, art and mathematics can get you onto a history of art course in Cambridge, and a drama degree is no obstacle to a career in accountancy for students holding maths and English A levels in their portfolios. Writing podcasts was not a direct university-to-work route; it came about via other work for the corporation.
It takes a leap of faith to follow the subjects in which you excel, especially when at 16-years-old you are used to following official advice. But such advice often operates on the known: what is paramount is the ability to spot and take on new possibilities that you encounter in a new environment.
And that’s where taking an English literature A level really scores. It’s creative and analytical, rigorous in the demands it places on students to create and develop telling arguments. It requires the ability to take on radically new ideas and make some sort of sense out of them in application. It’s a discipline that enhances communication skills because of the way students interact with language in a wide range of demanding texts. Most significantly, it’s a discipline that brings us all up close to narratives, the way they’re formed and reformed. It’s a discipline of increasing usefulness to companies – all of management literature and reporting is a kind of narrative, shaped for different audiences.
What really marks out successful A-level literature students is their enterprising nature, which trumps the unimaginative, over-conventional vision behind so-called Informed Choices website any day of the week.
The seminal novel Nineteen Eighty-Four is all about controlling and being controlled by narrative: “Who controls the past controls the future.” On that score alone, perhaps we should all study literature to the highest level – and we should be very careful about allowing the narrative of any one group of universities to control the present and future of young people.
Yvonne Williams is head of English and drama at a secondary school in the south of England