'Funding cuts are to blame for the decline in key A-level subjects'
Well done to the students who were yesterday celebrating their A-level and AS-level results, and our best wishes for the future. Congratulations also to our sixth forms and colleges which have once again done such a fantastic job in educating these young people.
Overall, yesterday’s results were stable, with little variation on those from last year. However, one area of deep concern must be the continuing decline in the number of entries for modern foreign languages, and for other "minority" subjects such as music and design and technology.
Why is this happening? The biggest problem is the low level of government funding per student in 16-19 education. This makes it increasingly difficult for sixth forms and colleges to run courses in subjects where there are relatively small numbers of students.
The figures suggest that subjects such as modern foreign languages, music and design and technology have become unviable in some sixth forms and colleges, and this pattern is likely to continue as cost pressures are increasing without any additional government funding.
The uptake of modern foreign languages also suffers because it has traditionally been hard to achieve top grades in these subjects, and this, understandably, deters people. Ofqual and the exam boards have now begun to address this issue of severe grading and the proportion of A*s awarded in French, German and Spanish all increased this year. However, it will perhaps take time for perceptions about the difficulty of these subjects to alter.
Another concern is the impact of the decoupling of AS levels from A levels. One advantage of the system which is now being phased out is that students were able to keep their options open for longer because they could take four or five AS levels and decide which of these to then take through to A level.
The decoupled system, together with less funding, means that sixth forms and colleges may only be able to offer three A-level subjects and our concern is that this reduction in choice will mean fewer numbers in individual subject areas. This will make small-entry subjects even less viable.
'The vicious cycle'
The effect of the decline in the take-up of these subjects is serious. It obviously means that there will be fewer people going on to higher education in them and ultimately to careers which require these skills and which make an important contribution to the national economy. In modern foreign languages, we are in danger of losing the linguistic skills to make us an internationally competitive nation. It also leads to a vicious circle in which fewer people graduating in these subjects means fewer teachers and therefore even more pressure on recruitment.
Indeed, it is increasingly difficult to see how the government will be able to realise its aspiration for 90 per cent of pupils to take GCSEs in the English Baccalaureate subjects with such a severe shortage of teachers in modern foreign languages, and in several other subjects, too.
The solution to this situation is simple but politically problematic. It is to raise the level of funding per student in 16-19 education to a level which makes "minority" subjects more viable and thereby addresses the narrowing of the curriculum which we are currently seeing.
The political problem is clearly that the government is committed to a deficit reduction programme which has entailed a massive squeeze on public spending.
One way out of this conundrum, however, is to view education as an investment rather than a cost. Money spent now on the education of young people is money spent on the long-term economic wellbeing of the country. It ensures that we have a future workforce with the right mixture of knowledge and skills for the demands of a complex and varied economy. We would argue that it is an investment which is not only pragmatic but essential.
Malcolm Trobe is interim general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders