Opinion: 'A-level choice is bearing the brunt of the funding crisis – and our students will suffer'
First, the good news. Hundreds of thousands of students deserve the warmest congratulations today on their A-level and AS-level results; so too do their teachers and the leaders of their schools and colleges. Outstanding work goes on up and down the country every day of the school year. It often goes unsung. The reality is that we live in a country with a very good education system, which provides an extremely talented and able workforce for the future.
And the results published today reflect that reality. For instance, we see an increase in the number of entrants taking the so-called "facilitating" subjects such as English and maths. In particular, it is good to note another rise in the number of students taking maths. Entrants for this vital subject have been increasing steadily over the past 10 years and it now has the largest take-up at A-level.
Maths is important for ensuring that the country has a workforce with the technical skills employers tell us they need. It is a core skill in a range of professions that play a key role in the nation’s economic well-being. And for students it opens up a range of subject choices at university, giving them excellent options.
All this is very encouraging. However, a bit of bad news is lurking in this year’s results: the number of people taking A-levels in some other important subjects – such as design and technology, music and German – has fallen. And with an even greater drop in the number of entrants for these subjects at AS-level this year, it is a trend which appears to be getting worse.
Our concern at the Association of School and College Leaders is that this reflects the extremely serious situation facing the 16-19 education sector in terms of funding. The immediate impact of the cuts of the past few years is that schools and colleges are less able to offer a full range of subjects, despite their best efforts to do so.
Some subjects generate smaller classes. These subjects are very important to the students taking them and offer skills that are key to a number of industries. However, schools and colleges faced with funding cuts simply cannot afford teaching staff for relatively small groups. The result is that they have no alternative but to drop some courses.
The figures released today strongly suggest that this is happening. The number of entrants for the “big-ticket” subjects has increased, while take-up in a number of other subjects has declined. This indicates that the funding situation in 16-19 education is having a direct impact on curriculum choice.
Does this matter? Well, yes, it matters a lot. Young people surely deserve to have a full range of options available to them. Everybody has different strengths and interests, and a more narrow range of choices is bound to disadvantage some students. Furthermore, these subjects are important to the country. The music industry, for instance, is a major strength of the UK's. We need people to be studying this subject to ensure that we have the musicians, technicians and teachers of the future.
The solution to this situation comes down to money. At the moment, the 16-19 education budget is not protected even from further cuts. Current funding levels must not fall any further, and we appeal to the government to look urgently at the case for additional funding to ease the immediate crisis facing schools and colleges. We owe it to young people to invest in their future.
Malcolm Trobe is policy director of the Association of School and College Leaders