Schools dropping A-level English 'due to tedious GCSE'

EXCLUSIVE: English teachers say 'dry' revised GCSEs are behind schools' decisions to drop the subject at A level

Catherine Lough

by the book: 'dry' English GCSEs are putting students off the subject at A level

Schools are dropping A-level English as fewer students continue the subject due to the “dull” and “tedious” nature of revised GCSE qualifications, teachers are warning.

The vast majority of English teachers surveyed by the English and Media Centre (EMC) reported a drop in the number of students taking A levels in English language, English Literature, and the combined English language and literature qualification in their schools.

The responses mirror figures published by the Joint Council for Qualifications (JCQ) showing a 31 per cent decline in entries across all three qualifications between 2012 and 2019.

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

Background: Call for urgent action to revive English A level 

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

Nearly half (47 per cent) of respondents to the EMC survey, seen by Tes, reported that their school had once offered A-level English language and literature but no longer did so, while 15 per cent said their schools had stopped offering A-level English language. 

There was less of a decline for A-level English literature, with two schools (1 per cent of those surveyed) reporting that they had dropped the subject. 

The survey, sent to more than 200 schools,  also found that where English A levels were still offered, class sizes were much smaller, and were close to unsustainable in many schools and colleges.

“Our class size has reduced from 15-20 to 4-8 students,” one respondent said.

“‘Literature numbers have collapsed to single figures,” another teacher reported.

Teachers said that a key factor behind the decline was the “dry” nature of the reformed English GCSEs, introduced from 2015 as part of a wholesale revamp of the qualifications system by then education secretary Michael Gove. 

The new English Language GCSE was highlighted as being particularly uninspiring, and 82 per cent of respondents said there had been a fall in take-up of the subject at A level in their school.

“Students find it all tedious. Language students are pleasantly surprised when they see that A level is not like GCSE,” one respondent said.

Another teacher reported: “GCSE syllabuses just aren't sufficiently stimulating and engaging – students are switched off.”

“Students hate the GCSE and seem to be being taught 'English by numbers'. It is definitely putting them off,” another respondent said.

Others said “the new GCSE specifications have really killed the joy of English” and “the course deters students as it is challenging and can be quite dry”.

Nearly all (99 per cent) of respondents reported a fall in take-up of the A level combined language and literature course. Teachers reported that the number one reason behind a decline in the number of entries was “students not enjoying GCSE English”.

For A-level literature, 79 per cent said they had seen a fall in the number of students continuing the subject to A level. Teachers said the key reason behind a drop in student numbers was that Stem (science, technology, engineering and maths) subjects were seen as the best option for university study and employment.

However, one respondent said: “The narrowness of the GCSE specifications and the increased focus on 19th-century canonical texts has decreased enjoyment and variety somewhat and does not prepare students for the more varied diet at A level.”

When Michael Gove brought in the revised GCSEs, he said they "set higher expectations" and provided further challenge to those aiming for top grades. 

But Barbara Bleiman, an education consultant at EMC, said they had been a turn-off for many students. 

She added: “Historically, students have always loved English – it was often their favourite subject. Now they are turning away from it. Teachers say it is the ‘dry’, ‘dull’, ‘narrow’ GCSEs, particularly English language, that are switching them off in droves. We need urgent action to address this.

“The life cycle of the subject – from primary into key stage 3, GCSE into A level, degree-level study and teacher training – is under serious threat.

"We need to understand why and then there needs to be swift action at a national policy level to do something about it. If we don’t, the whole subject – and the teaching of it at every level – is at risk.”

The survey findings also had social justice implications, she added, given that respondents from independent schools could follow the IGCSE curriculum, which has not been subject to the same revisions as GCSEs.

One survey respondent who worked in a private school said.“'We are fortunate in being able to offer IGCSE English language and literature. Although there are issues with these specs, I feel they are better and more engaging than the new 2015 GCSEs."

Andrew McCallum, director of the EMC, added: “Policymakers need to wake up to the damage being done to our national subject. If they let the situation continue like this, then soon we will have a real crisis in recruitment to English teaching.

“We brought this issue to the attention of the Department for Education two years ago and, as far as we can see, at a policy level, nothing has been done. Action has to be taken before it’s too late.”

The Department for Education's position is that the new GCSEs are more rigorous, prepare pupils for the world of work and were implemented after a long and careful process of reform. 

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author bio

Catherine Lough

Catherine Lough is a reporter at Tes.

Find me on Twitter @CathImogenLough

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