Entries for A-level English have fallen by more than one-third in the past decade in England, latest statistics show, prompting calls for the government to roll back on key reforms in order to tackle this “crisis”.
Ofqual provisional data for summer 2022 showed there were 53,965 entries this year across all English A-levels – a 20 per cent drop on 67,865 in 2018, and a 35 per cent fall from 2013, when 84,250 entries were recorded.
Education chiefs agree that changes to the GCSE English course in 2017 have contributed to the drop. These included removing the spoken assessment in the language portion and placing greater emphasis on 19th-century texts at the expense of modern fiction.
David Duff, chair of the English Association and the Common English Forum, which have launched campaigns to safeguard the subject, said that it was “undoubtedly a crisis” and explained that there was no issue with the quality of the A-level courses themselves but the GCSE reform had impacted negatively.
He said that the changes introduced to be more rigorous have “made it more difficult to teach in an exciting way and made for some quite deadly dull exams, which gives people a bad experience of English”.
“We are trying, through the Common English Forum, to persuade the Department for Education to change tack on this and undo some of these changes,” he said.
Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said he was “saddened” by the decline, adding: “The feedback we receive from leaders is that the reformed GCSE English literature qualification can be something of a grind.
“It is heavily focused on traditional texts, which are obviously very fine works but are not necessarily always the most engaging for young people in a modern society, and the exam requires large amounts of memorisation, rather like an old-fashioned O-level. As a result, it does seem that this may be putting off students from continuing to study the subject at A-level.”
The Common English Forum has been meeting periodically with the DfE to discuss the issue, with another meeting planned this summer.
Duff said: “They have made encouraging noises but there is not an appetite in the system to change dramatically the GCSEs at this point. They might be right, but certainly the perception in schools is that aspects of the GCSE language especially need to change as soon as possible because it has taken a lot of life out of what used to be a very popular GCSE.”
Barton said the high costs of university courses may also have put students off pursuing the subject beyond GCSE, and added: “English is, of course, an excellent choice for a wide variety of careers, including, critically, teaching, and there is a real danger of a deepening supply crisis in this subject.
“We do need to be careful that the current system does not end up having such a damaging impact on English that it becomes extremely difficult to remedy.”
The English Association believes it is a pattern seen across arts and humanities subjects, at the expense of the government’s drive for STEM – science, technology, engineering and maths – subjects.
There are fears, too, that a bad experience at GCSE may put off college students who were re-sitting exams as part of their post-16 courses.
The English Association has launched the ‘Choose English’ campaign to directly address 14 to 16 year olds and highlight the benefits of the subject at A-level, as well as boosting further education staff in its membership and facilitating tie-ups between universities and schools to bolster links.
Duff said the take-up of maths A-levels had been “transformed” after intervention by the DfE, with English now needing similar recognition.
The Department for Education did not respond to requests for comment at the time of going to press.
This year’s A-level students will find out their results on August 18.