Students studying ‘exceedingly narrow’ range of A-level subjects, Royal Society warns

New study by Education Policy Institute raises concerns over shrinking numbers of pupils studying across different disciplines

Students in England are increasingly studying an “exceedingly narrow” range of subjects at A-level, with the proportion studying subjects in multiple fields half what it was in 2010, the Royal Society has warned.

Fewer students study subjects in more than one of the five disciplines – science, technology and engineering; mathematics; languages; humanities, arts and social sciences and vocational and professional – than a decade ago. The proportion of students with level 3 qualifications spanning three or more subject groups has fallen from 38% in 2010 to 17% in 2019.

The Royal Society, the fellowship of many of the world’s most distinguished scientists, commissioned the Education Policy Institute (EPI) to investigate the 10-year-long trend, which it warns could harm further study and employment opportunities.

In 2019, around one in four students in key stage 5 studied subjects from just one of the main disciplines. Just 1% of key stage 5 students study subjects from four of these disciplines, down from almost 10% in 2010.

The decline in subject choices was steepest between 2016 and 2019, dropping 14 percentage points. The average 18-year-old now leaves compulsory education with qualifications from fewer than two subject groups.

Students in England “narrow” their subjects far earlier than in most countries, often pursuing just three up to the age of 18: in South Korea, for example, students taking the College Scholastic Ability Test are usually assessed in six subjects, typically including maths, Korean and English. Sounding the alarm to ministers and policymakers in England, the Royal Society warns this “uniquely narrow offer is becoming narrower still”.

We have one of the narrowest post-16 education systems in the world, and new evidence shows that this has become even narrower in recent years. This is at odds with the growing evidence that the UK needs to head towards offering a broader education system – Prof Ulrike Tillmann, Royal Society

After controlling for student prior attainment and other factors, the impact of studying a greater range of subjects at A-level has a similar effect on early career salaries as factors such as the university attended by a student or their socio-economic background, researchers say.

Students who perform less well at GCSE are more likely to pursue a narrow field of subjects at A-level. Disadvantaged students and Gypsy or Roma, Black Caribbean, White and Black Caribbean and students with any other black background study the narrowest range of subjects on average.

The report suggests that the decision to decouple AS levels from A2s during the tenure of education secretary Michael Gove could be partly responsible. Researchers also warned that key stage 5 spending cuts could be a contributory factor. The decision to make languages non-compulsory at GCSE may also partly explain the trend.

“We have one of the narrowest post-16 education systems in the world, and new evidence shows that this has become even narrower in recent years,” said Prof Ulrike Tillmann, chair of the Royal Society Education Committee. “This is at odds with the growing evidence that the UK needs to head towards offering a broader education system.”

Continued Prof Tillmann: “We urgently need to start a national conversation about giving young people an education that is more in tune with what they will need to adapt and thrive in future.

“We need to prioritise equipping all young people with the opportunity to develop the broad knowledge, skills and experience that they will need to adapt to a rapidly changing, technology-rich world.”

David Robinson, report author and director of post-16 and skills at the Education Policy Institute (EPI), said:“ Because of government reforms and over ten years of funding pressures, students are now much more likely to take a narrow set of subjects.

“Our study finds that there are career benefits for those students taking a broader range of subjects. There is therefore also a concern that if the narrowing of provision continues along this path, many students could miss out on the broad range of skills needed to navigate the future labour market.

“The government must now act to ensure that our already uniquely narrow 16-19 education is not squeezed further still.”


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