General studies A-level to be axed

18th October 2015 at 13:01
general studies exam to be axed

It has been around since the 1950s, easing the passage to university for generations of pupils in return for very little revision. But TES can reveal that the Department for Education has decided to abolish A-level general studies.

The subject was first taught in 1954, and by 1993 had grown to become the second most popular A-level. Now the government has decided that general studies does not meet the “high” standards being introduced under its exam reform programme. A decision to scrap the subject’s younger cousin – critical thinking – had already been taken.

“It has not been possible to draft content for AS- and A-level general studies and critical thinking to meet the requirements of reformed AS-levels and A-levels,” a DfE spokesperson told TES. “As a result, they will not be available for teaching in 2017.”

The subject – in which many students sit an exam after relatively little or no formal teaching – has long been dogged by suggestions that it is less valuable than other subjects, fuelled in part by many Russell Group universities accepting it only as an extra on top of other A-levels.

‘Inflated’ scores

Earlier this month, free-schools charity the New Schools Network revealed research showing that the top 500 state schools accounted for almost 90 per cent of entries to general studies and critical thinking. NSN director Nick Timothy claimed schools were using the A-levels to “inflate” their scores and were failing to provide “quality and rigour” (

Other research suggests the qualification is harder than it has been given credit for. A 2007 analysis by Durham University found general studies was the subject in which pupils were least likely to achieve high grades. And John Hutton, emeritus professor of economics at the University of York, stated in August that general studies was the “only predictor worth considering” for results at the university in his subject.

But general studies has been in decline for much of the past decade, with A-level entries falling by 12 per cent to 40,984 in 2011. This prompted Brian Lightman, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), to say that the subject had “probably had its day”. Since then entries have dropped a further 56 per cent, with just 18,092 this summer.

The final nail in the subject’s coffin has been the rapid rise in popularity of the Extended Project Qualification (EPQ), which can involve a 5,000-word dissertation, a report with findings from an investigation or study, or a short film or piece of music.

In 2010, former ASCL general secretary John Dunford noted that “the extended project develops a wider range of skills in a way that general studies doesn’t”, adding: “I think general studies was a good thing in its day but we are moving on.”

In the following year, 2011, there was a 51 per cent rise in entries for the EPQ. Since then they have climbed to 33,564.

Chris Healey, headteacher of Balcarras School in Cheltenham, said his sixth-formers favoured the EPQ. “General studies is passing without being mourned very much,” he told TES.


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