As the numbers of students choosing to study English at A Level decreases, so do the numbers of people studying English at university. If this trend continues, there will be fewer teachers who are specialists in English; fewer English graduates out in the workplace and the world; and ultimately there will be fewer scholars pushing the discipline forward.
For many years, the government has prioritised STEM subjects. Maths, for example, has seen a renaissance due to the government funding flowing into hubs and centres of excellence initiatives, and it’s fantastic that the government is supporting subjects that need extra help, but this support for one subject should not come at the expense of another. At the same time, there is a national focus in the media – and rightly so – on addressing the numbers of girls undertaking STEM study, but there is no parallel support for an investigation into why there are fewer boys than girls studying English.
The experience of the subject on the ground is a vital factor in the health of the discipline: teachers have told us that the prescribed curriculum and assessment within the current (recently reformed) English GCSEs is a grind to teach and learn: it doesn’t represent the lively, joyful, creative subject we know English to be.
The Common English Forum, has put a series of proposals to the Department for Education related to the GCSE English Language curriculum based on the principle that the texts and tasks covered in the GCSE should reflect and represent young people and support them in their life, learning, and employment. In addition, the pressures on teachers (and their schools and colleges) to ensure 4+ and higher grades at GCSE means that they are forced to prepare students for the GCSE earlier and earlier in their school lives. This means that by the time students reach their GCSE years, they have covered the same ground repeatedly and are put off choosing the subject for an A Level.
Layered on top of this experience of English as a subject in school is the fact that young people don’t make their A Level choices in a vacuum; they are not immune to the pressures of the world around them. The economic challenges we’re facing mean that young people are anxious about their future careers, and want to study subjects that will secure a good wage and good employability prospects.
We know, from robust evidence, that studying English can give them just that, but the pervading narrative – in the media more broadly and coming out of government – presents a different picture, where only STEM graduates enter well-paid, stable careers.
But the situation is not hopeless, by any means. There are things we can do to address these challenges. Teachers can:
1) Share the facts with students, parents and carers, careers advisors, and Head teachers.
Organisations such as The English Association and The British Academy have gathered statistics that show that Arts and Humanities graduates are just as employable as STEM graduates, and enjoy wage growth at a similar rate. The fastest growing sectors in the UK economy employ more graduates from the Arts and Humanities than other disciplines, including in the well-paid information/communications industry and the finance sector.
2) Talk to students about the skills and qualities they develop when they study English, that will benefit them and enrich their lives now and in the future.
English helps to develop skills such as empathy, exploring your creativity by connecting disparate ideas in new and interesting ways, exploring your own views and identity, and learning how to use your voice effectively to talk about the things you care about.
Core skills like close reading, defining a question and working out how to answer it, analysis, interpretation, collaboration, and making evidence-based decisions can be applied across all other subjects and in the wider world; never before have we needed so urgently to be able to cut through false news and counterfactual narratives. Employers are looking out for English graduates precisely because they demonstrate these skills and qualities.
3) Present to students the diverse range of university options that can follow on from an English A Level and highlight the rich and varied careers an English degree unlocks.
Subject associations have gathered data which shows that English graduates go on to do all kinds of work, from consulting to web design, working in the creative, cultural and heritage sectors to politics and global leadership. We want to engage with the employability debate while also going beyond a utilitarian justification for the subject, acknowledging that the study of English can help young people to do so much more than secure a career: people study English to explore their identity, find their voice as an activist, and/or for the love of reading and writing.
A collective effort
Subject associations and awarding bodies are here to support teachers in this effort. Pearson’s new GCSE English Language qualification has specifically been designed to engage and motivate students through a choice of contemporary texts, relatable modern themes and real-world writing tasks.
In addition, The English Association is about to launch EA Hubs, an initiative which keeps teachers at the heart of the disciplinary community, connecting researchers and teachers to share knowledge and engage together with the forefront of the discipline. EA Hubs will not only enhance teachers’ subject knowledge but fire them up with the excitement of the creativity at the heart of our subject.
But it’s important not to place all of this burden on teachers. Parents, careers advisors, school librarians, teachers of subjects experiencing a similar decline, and school senior leaders all need to be informed participants in this conversation.
Together, we can amplify the case we are making for English so that government and policy-makers hear us loud and clear: the study of the English literature, language, and creative writing equips young people with valuable skills that make them attractive to employers; a robust discipline of English studies has much to contribute to other disciplines across the arts, humanities, and sciences; and most importantly, the study of English has value in its own right.
The English Association fosters excellence in teaching and research and promotes the study and enjoyment of English literature, language, and creative writing across all sectors of education.
Dr Rebecca Fisher is the Chief Executive Officer of the English Association. She is also a Director of and Honorary Treasurer for the Council for Subject Associations. Prior to joining the EA in 2018, she held various academic and administrative roles with a focus on testing, challenging, and dismantling unhelpful hierarchies of power within and beyond the classroom. Her research interests include early English language and literature, playfulness in education, and bringing academics, independent scholars, and the public together.