Why English is crucial to a young person's development

Gordon Cairns, a teacher of English, is delighted to see his subject holding up in Scotland – unlike in England

Gordon Cairns

English is still holding its own in Scotland - but the subject has seen a decline in entries south of the border, says Gordon Cairns

Alongside maths, English has traditionally been considered the subject with the greatest prestige in UK schools. But a worrying trend is developing: the number of pupils studying English to its highest level in England, Wales and Northern Ireland is falling.

There have been various reasons given why, including the drive to encourage girls into taking Stem (science, technology, engineering and maths) subjects having taken away the subject's traditional market, without a corresponding shift in the number of boys to make up the shortfall. Furthermore, while an aptitude for English may well lead to studying an arts course at university, annual fees of £9,250 make following a career in the arts – and, arguably, education – a less than pragmatic choice.

Another potential nail in the coffin of English as we know it is the subjective nature of essay marking, where a difficult question and an unsympathetic marker could lower a grade, whereas in maths and sciences the answer is the answer.

Quick read: Why are fewer students doing English in England?

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Interestingly, in Scotland numbers have remained constant after the new exam system has bedded in, with Higher exam entrants hovering around the 36,000 mark year-on-year while National 5 entrants have stabilised at around 45,000.

Scotland bucks the English trend

Which begs the question of why there hasn't been a similar drop in the take-up of English in Scotland. After all, there has been a similar drive to push females towards Stem subjects in Scotland, and our young people will be entering the same job market as their counterparts across the border.

I suspect it's a number of reasons. Of course, not having to go heavily into debt to study at university makes an arts degree far more enticing in Scotland. Paying back student loans on a less-than-average salary can make a career based on an arts degree distinctly uncomfortable.

But the reasons why English is holding its own in Scotland are not just financial. Our schools offer a wider subject choice in the senior phase (the last three years of secondary school) than the three A levels which students generally sit in the rest of the UK. This allows students in Scotland a broader education: it is possible to study the core Stem subjects and an aspect of the humanities.

And although the English exam itself at Higher and National 5 (the level below higher, broadly equivalent to a good GCSE), has been subject to quite justified criticism, it does allow for a more "predictable mark", giving a better measure of a student's abilities. As almost a third of the mark can be earned in the folio, which is taken outwith exam conditions, a student's final mark is not wholly based on exam performance, but on a truer reflection of their abilities as a writer.

Incidentally, while prescriptive changes to the GCSEs introduced by former Westminster education secretary Michael Gove have been criticised for focusing on irrelevant literature and turning students off English, the equivalent study of Scottish texts here is arguably as equally irrelevant today as Charles Dickens is to modern audiences – the Scottish text is, though, at least easy to pass!

All subject specialists will argue passionately why it is important their subject is studied to the highest level, and I am no different. In my opinion, it is crucial for the development of a person's mind to have analysed at least one piece of difficult literature in their life, whatever their future career turns out to be.

At least our students in Scotland will have had a fair opportunity to develop this skill.

Gordon Cairns is a teacher of English in Scotland

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Gordon Cairns

Gordon Cairns is a forest school and English teacher who works in Scotland

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