Recent years have seen the number of students opting to take English A-levels decrease. A focus on STEM subjects (Science, Technology, Engineering, Maths), the falling popularity of AS-levels as well as more apprenticeship opportunities has meant that 16-year-olds are increasingly choosing pathways that don’t include studying English. However, the problem facing English Language is significantly more than that facing English Literature: English Language experienced a decline of 39% in entries between 2016 and 2021 yet Literature entries only fell 19% over the same 5-year period. This is clearly an issue as the skills developed in studying English Language are crucial in a wide range of jobs, from marketing to Speech and Language Therapists, and with fewer than 15,000 students in 2021 choosing to look at how our language works as part of their A-levels the potential pool of applicants for these jobs is becoming increasing shallow.
So why has English Language suffered such a reduction in numbers in comparison to Literature? One would imagine that a focus on STEM subjects would affect both subjects equally, but as Language has declined at double the rate of Literature we must look for a different cause. Perhaps the GCSE reform that was introduced for the Year 11 cohort of 2017 can offer some explanation. This reform is most famous for introducing two final exams rather than a combination of Controlled Assessments and exams. However, it also dramatically changed the content that the exam boards were able to offer. Many will agree that this specification is more rigorous than its predecessor, but it also bears minimal resemblance to the Language A-level. Whereas the Literature A-level builds well on the GCSE, containing many of the same elements (novels, plays, Shakespeare, poetry) and expects students to explore them in more detail, the English Language A-level shares no skills with its GCSE counterpart. Students are faced with an entirely different set of skills to learn, more akin to those they will have used in the Social Sciences than English Language GCSE and although this is exciting for some students, for many they prefer the comfort of something that they have already tried and succeeded at - particularly when the stakes for choosing the wrong A-level can seem so extreme, resitting a year at college when your peers are off to University is a terrifying prospect for many 18 year olds! There is always going to be a step-up between GCSE and A-level but to many students, the difference at English Language can seem a bridge too far.
Additionally, many of the elements that caused students to become excited about studying Linguistics have been removed from the current GCSE. All mentions of how your gender or your class could impact the language you speak have been removed from the GCSE yet make up a significant proportion of the A-level. The Spoken Language elements (both being able to use it and analyse it) and the focus on real-life current texts have been replaced with pieces of 19th and 20th Century Literature that students need to analyse in terms of their language, structure, genre and other typically “Literature” methods. This means that too often the ‘spark’ that grabs students and begins a love of linguistics is missing from their GCSE studies and therefore the desire to further study the subject just isn’t there.
As well as the problems posed by the GCSE, another potential issue is the obsolete facilitating list of subjects for Russell Group Universities. Despite this being abolished in 2019, many students (and some staff members) are still under the impression that universities would prefer Literature to Language. Conversations with the admission teams at Cambridge have confirmed that both are viewed equally but when a quick Google search tells teenagers that Literature is better it is a hard PR battle to overcome!
English Language A-level is a demanding subject: students are required to write essays, apply knowledge of theories and case studies and analyse a wide range of texts. Universities now recognise this, but it is astonishing how many educators are still working from the outdated belief that Literature is a more ‘rigorous subject’. Perhaps some of our brightest and best students are being discouraged from applying by the outdated notion that they won’t be viewed favourably for choosing to explore Language.
One thing is certain though, steps must be taken to address this dramatic decline in the study of our language if we want the next generation to be language aware, critical thinkers with good communication and analytical skills.
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