Why A-level English is priceless

Students are encouraged to pick A levels based on earnings – but English is about more than cash, says Elizabeth Draper

A-level English literature: 'Its value is priceless,' says Elizabeth Draper

Earlier this month, the Department for Education published a report showing what students of different A-level courses went on to earn. Is this what we have come to? The value of A levels, level 3 courses, reduced to a salary scale? Does sixth-form education boil down to the matter of money? Is this our "intent" as educators? To point our students towards those A levels or level 3 qualifications that offer the potential of higher earnings?

In compiling such a list, in this list-addicted culture, we encourage such financial incentive: choose what will be the best bet for a better-paid future. 

Does that hollow out the soul of education?


Background: Revealed: The highest-paying A-level subjects 

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

Opinion: Why A-level English should include books in translation


I have worked in education, and taught A levels, over the past 28 years, having chosen to study English, French and sociology A levels myself. 

I didn’t go directly into teaching after my English degree. I worked in bookselling and publishing for a few years then, after completing a master's, I decided to continue in education and trained as a teacher. It’s a decision that I’ve never regretted. I have witnessed time and time again the rich process of enlightenment and intellectual evolution as students have gained a massive increase in their cultural, political, social, emotional and ethical knowledge, understanding and confidence.

A-level English: Understanding our place in the world

I watched students engage with voices from across ages, cultures, geographies and economic, political landscapes. I've seen these voices reach into students' hearts, minds and souls. 

I have watched as students have conversed with the writings in novels, plays, poems, short stories, novellas, and I’ve seen how these writings can ignite students' thinking, open many differently shaped windows into being and inspire questions from them about finding joy, love, dealing with hate, loss and regret and engaging with birth and death. Or in other words, looking into the many facets of what it is to be alive. 

I’ve seen pupils facing up to things and talking them through. I’ve seen them develop a shared and healthy emotional literacy. There have been priceless times in the classroom or when marking essays when I’ve found myself utterly moved by the understandings and empathies written in student's response to ideas and feelings expressed by others.

They find their own voice, and they come into their own. These students have this opportunity to make sense of themselves through others: to find their own meaning, encouraged and at times ferociously forced as they are by what they are reading at this young age. On the brink of adulthood, these students are trying to find ways to live and ways of being that make them feel they belong in this world. 

Intellectual and cultural richness

There’s never a dull moment in the English A-level classroom. I’ve never, ever been bored when I’ve been in the classroom with my students. I remember well all those open evenings spent with excited, tentative or at times eager 15-year-olds as they have found out about the possibilities ahead as they reach the sixth-form stage of their education. 

When any student expressed an interest in A-level English, I asked one key question: do you like reading? If the answer was yes, I asked them to tell me about what they had recently read. If they answered in the negative, there was little chance they would get what they wanted from a subject that demands lots of reading. 

With those who are interested, I responded to their questions about the A-level content and assessment process. I always informed them that the study of literature is fantastic because of its breadth and depth: not only are you studying the art and craft of writing, the power of language and of reading, but also history, geography, sociology, psychology, politics, aesthetics and philosophy.  

The joy of A-level English literature is in its intellectual and cultural richness and the knowledge of humanity it brings. It’s priceless.

It was always a joy to me when I came across a student who was predominantly studying science subjects with the aim of going on to study medicine. And yet, in many cases, it was absolutely clear to them that the study of A-level English literature gave them a huge advantage, equipping them with a deeper, broader understanding of humanity that they were surely going to need in their (higher salaried) employment as doctors. 

Thanks to the writers and thinkers explored in the subject, students learn to know: you are not alone, life is full of possibilities, there is adventure, comfort, consolation, escape, inspiration, refuge, validation – and intellectual demand – to be found in the study of literature. 

The joy in life

Students learn what writing brings: you can make space to include yourself, give voice to who you are and write ways out of loneliness, as other writers have done. It’s a chance to say the unsaid, write yourself into being, find your way through. 

The stuff of human creative power is to be found when studying A-level English literature. It tells us that humanity is a common uniting experience of possibility and hope, as much as it explores division and the heartbreak of antagonistic living. Studying literature encourages us to keep finding the language to communicate ourselves to each other, to help us to understand what's going on and to more than survive through it all. We actively listen to stories told.

In these uncertain times, literature, writings, storytelling fill a gaping and urgent need – they show all of us the miracle and joy of life. They keep us calm, steady, confident and hopeful. Literature reminds us and tells us of bravery, survival and the power of imagination. 

Our young folk need to know about such things more than anything right now. The numbers for A-level English literature should be through the roof. It secures something so precious in the hearts and minds of our young people: soul food. Bigger salary potential doesn't even come close.

Footnote: literature A-level students can also have the potential to earn a decent wage, as indeed can English graduates. I'm sure you've also noticed that our economy and wellbeing benefits from a long line of prolific and successful playwrights, poets, novelists, short-story writers and the occasional journalist. 

 Elizabeth Draper is an English advisor for post-16 English provision. She was a director of English and head of English before that

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