Nobel Prize-winning scientist Venki Ramakrishnan knows more than most about the benefits of studying a variety of subjects. Although his award in 2009 was for his groundbreaking work in chemistry, he initially went to university to study physics before switching to biology – the strand of science he now concentrates on. Meanwhile, his son, Raman, was set to follow his father into a career in science, before deciding to become a concert cellist.
So when Ramakrishnan says that the curriculum in UK schools is far too narrow for our pupils, he approaches the subject with more than a degree of authority. He believes the “siloing” of education, where pupils only focus on a narrow range of subjects that they are best at, will limit the ability of future generations to cope with the rapidly changing world they are going to have to navigate. To counterbalance this, he proposes that all science students should study history and languages, while humanities students should learn a certain amount of science.
It is clear, now more than ever, that the adult population needs as wide an education as possible. Scientists should be equipped with the ability to detect fake news through their studies of close reading in English, while accountants should be able to understand the terminology of climate change from what they learned in geography.
Yet, while a change is occurring in the breadth of subjects pupils study across the UK, unfortunately it is not in the direction Ramakrishnan desires. In Scotland, due to changes in the examination system, the choice offered to pupils in the senior phase is shrinking by an average of 25 per cent. According to Mark Priestley, a professor of education at the University of Stirling, the number of subjects students study to exam level in S4 has fallen from eight to six and in some schools, which are typically based in poorer catchment areas, only five subjects are studied at this stage (although he stresses that the picture in Scotland is more complex than is sometimes portrayed). There is a similar scenario in England, where the number of A-level subjects that pupils are sitting has fallen.
It's not by chance that curricula are narrowing just when we need as wide a knowledge base as possible: it suits schools to offer less, not more. If pupils only sit exams for subjects in which they are strong, there is less chance of failure, thus boosting the exam pass rate upon which schools get judged. At the same time, competition has increased for university places, thereby reducing the likelihood of a pupil studying a subject just out of interest instead of one that would help their university application.
Countries across the world have managed to widen the subject base studied at senior level. With a shift in priorities in the UK, Ramakrishnan’s goals could be achieved here, too.
Gordon Cairns is a teacher of English in Scotland