English A-level student numbers plummet following GCSE reforms

Student doing exam

Students say English is too ‘boring’ and ‘intimidating’ to study at A-level

Data from Ofqual, the exam watchdog, shows that 25% fewer students opted to take A-level English in 2019 than 2016. 

A-level admissions into any of the English disciplines (English literature, English language and English language & literature) have fallen from around 80,000 to around 60,000 in the last three years.

The sharp drop in numbers follows the introduction of a new GCSE course in 2015, where coursework was removed in favour of closed-book exams.

'I was too scared to take it'

In a thread on TSR, many users have complained about the intensity of the GCSE, finding they have lost their love for the subject.

Leviathan1741 says that “during the first couple of years of secondary school I really enjoyed studying English, but when it became focused around analysing what other people had written instead of writing creatively myself, it lost all of its enjoyment“.

The closed-book exam requires students to recall quotations from 15 poems and several drama and prose texts, which has left some TSR users feeling overwhelmed.

Deggs_14 found that there was “too much reading, and I don’t like English literature as it is just “too big”. You can feel intimidated by having to read the books over and over, learn quotes, speeches, just it feels overwhelming, and incomprehensible”.

MinaBee says, “I was too scared to take it. I considered doing English lit for a while as it was one of my best and favourite subjects at GCSE but for some reason the A-level just intimidated me. I do kind of regret not doing it now”.

She also suggests that the positive reputation of STEM subjects is persuading students not to take up English at A-level.  

Stigma?

STEM subjects are often promoted to students as providing the most sought-after skills in the modern job market.

The Conservative MP, Nicky Morgan, made a speech during her time as education secretary which endorsed STEM subjects at the expense of humanities.

She stated that “[in the past] if you didn’t know what you wanted to do […] the arts and humanities were what you chose because they were useful […] we now know this couldn’t be further from the truth, that the subjects to keep young people’s options open and unlock doors to all sorts of careers are STEM subjects”.

The suggestion that humanities equip students with fewer practical skills than STEM has influenced some TSR users’ A-level and degree choices.

Lkathryn08 says that although she did English at A-level, she felt she was “constantly told by parents and other people” that she wouldn’t be able to do as much by doing English as opposed to doing STEM at degree level.

She “did enjoy STEM more which is why most of my choices were science and maths so I don’t think it swayed me completely and I don’t regret my choice to not continue with it. But I feel like there is a stigma about English higher education”.

Entertainmyfaith is “not surprised entries are dropping” because “people are either loving or hating the subject and I can't imagine it appealing to most at GCSE“.

They add that they “liked it at GCSE but now, not so much at a level and you've also got the message that's being increasingly drilled in our heads that STEM subjects are the better ones to take”.

Employability

Many TSR students are opting to drop English in favour of a subject they think will make them more employable.

The wider impact of this may be seen in the increase of A-level students studying computing, chemistry and biology, which are up by 37%, 14% and 13% respectively since 2017.  

HappyMedic2001 felt compelled to stick to all STEM subjects despite liking English because they were going on to do a medicine degree: “I really enjoyed GCSE English Language and English Literature and always found joy in revising it. When it came to choosing A levels, I did consider it as I scored 2A*s in both English but my choice of career (medicine) forced me to take the STEM subjects, having English on top of them would be very stressful.”

Tolgarda says that “I think there's no reason to be upset by STEM's increase in popularity. They are in great demand, help the economy and are definitely more valuable than English, which is why I took chemistry.”

You either like it, or you don’t

Regardless of fears about employability, English has always been a Marmite subject.

The reading material and essay style mean some students find their English GCSE boring or difficult.

GreenCub didn’t like reading “books and plays that [they] had no interest in” and “hated writing the kinds of essays you have to write in English and honestly didn’t see the point in debating, for example, whether Eric’s character changes throughout the play in An Inspector Calls”.

But other students really enjoy the subject. Liamlarner took English Literature at A-level because “I like reading Shakespeare and novels and I like looking at context of the authors and when the books were written”.

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