A levels: Call for urgent action to revive English

Headteachers' union blames an estimated 13 per cent drop in English A-level entries on 'joyless slog' of English GCSE

Catherine Lough

A-level results: English A-level uptake is in decline, figures suggest

A heads' union has called for measures to reverse a long-term decline in English A-level entries, which it blames on the "joyless" content of the new GCSE.

The Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) expects tomorrow’s A-level results to confirm Ofqual data from May, which showed that entries in A-level English subjects had fallen by 13 per cent.

News: 'Formulaic' GCSEs putting students off English A levels

Insight: A-level English is under threat. Can we save it?

Results: More top grades predicted in English and maths A levels

The decline is particularly pronounced in English language A-level entries, where the number of candidates has fallen by over 20 per cent, from 17,875 to 13,815.

Geoff Barton, ASCL general secretary, blames revised English GCSEs for the decline.

“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," he said.

Drop in entries for A-level English

"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.”

ASCL is concerned that the new English language exam focuses too much on analysis of historic texts, while English literature, which has been revised to only include “closed-book” exams, involves memorising swathes of quotations.

One assistant headteacher said: “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.”

The news follows reports that some experts feel that reformed English GCSEs, introduced in September 2015, are putting off pupils from studying the subject further at A level.

Professor Alan Smithers, of the University of Buckingham, has argued that the reformed qualifications – which were designed to be tougher – are discouraging “weaker candidates” from studying English further.

And Peter Thomas, chair of the National Association for the Teaching of English (NATE), said the new GCSE exams were overly “formulaic” and did not inspire students to explore the subject at A level.

Figures from the Joint Council for Qualifications (JCQ), which represents exam boards, show a long-term decline in the number of English A-level entries.

There has also been a general shift away from arts and humanities subjects in favour of science, technology, engineering and maths (Stem) qualifications. Between 2010 and 2018, entries in A-level maths, physics and chemistry increased by about a quarter, with the number of candidates taking further maths rising by 35 per cent.

During the same period, entries in MFL, drama, music and media studies declined sharply, while the number of students taking design and technology fell by 40 per cent.

The ASCL has suggested that government policy has “marginalised” creative subjects, and that students are deterred from taking modern foreign languages because of perceptions that these subjects are graded more severely.

The ASCL also said government funding cuts meant it was difficult for schools and colleges to sustain courses with few students taking them.

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author bio

Catherine Lough

Catherine Lough is a reporter at Tes.

Find me on Twitter @CathImogenLough

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