Government reforms and funding cuts ‘led to narrower subject choices at A-level’

The Government must now act to ensure ‘our already uniquely narrow 16-19 education is not squeezed further still’, a think tank says.

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Government reforms to qualifications and funding cuts have led to students’ subject choices at A-level becoming “exceedingly narrow”, a report warns.

Disadvantaged students and those with special educational needs (SEN) are less likely to study a broad range of subjects at A-level than their peers, according to the Education Policy Institute (EPI) study.

The proportion of students with qualifications from three or more of the five main subject groups (sciences, maths, languages, humanities, vocational) has halved since 2010, the research suggests.

In 2010, nearly two in five (38%) students took A-levels or equivalent qualifications covering three or more of these subject groups, but by 2019 only 17% did.

In England, the decoupling of AS and A-levels – where reformed AS levels no longer count towards a full A-level – led to fewer qualifications being taken and reduced subject diversity, the think tank concludes.

Real-terms funding cuts have also contributed to narrower student choices at A-level as fewer qualifications have been made available, according to the research commissioned by the Royal Society.

The report also suggests that graduates who had greater diversity in their A-level subjects were likely to see a small boost to their earnings in their mid-twenties.

It found that 26-year-olds who had studied post-16 qualifications from two or more subject groups went on to earn around 3-4% more than those who studied qualifications from only one group, after controlling for student’s characteristics and educational attainment.

While the difference is small, it is comparable in size to factors such as the university attended by a student or their socio-economic background, the analysis suggests.

It also found that students with an average of a standard pass (grade 4) in GCSE English and maths take A-levels from one subject group, while students with a grade 7 or above take A-levels from at least two areas.

Students from Chinese and Indian backgrounds are shown to study the broadest range of subjects, covering around two subject groups on average, while Black Caribbean and Gypsy or Roma students study the narrowest range, covering 1.5 subject groups on average, according to the research.

The think tank is calling on the Government to undertake a review of 16-19 funding – including reducing funding cuts and offering more targeted support for disadvantaged students – to avert further narrowing.

The report says: “When the government undertook their reforms of A and AS levels they were keen to preserve the additional breadth offered by AS levels (Rt Hon Michael Gove MP 2013).

“This clearly has not happened. The government must act to ensure that England’s already uniquely narrow 16-19 provision is not squeezed further still.”

David Robinson, report author and director of post-16 and skills at EPI, said: “Because of government reforms and over 10 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.”

Professor Ulrike Tillmann, chair of the Royal Society education committee, said: “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.

“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.”

A Department for Education spokesman said: “Our reforms to AS and A levels created more teaching time so pupils develop the knowledge and understanding they need to master their subject, without the sixth form years being dominated by continual exams.

“Students can continue to study an AS qualification in some subjects alongside their A levels and schools and colleges should support students in making their decisions in which qualifications and subjects to choose.

“In order to continue to support A level students, we made a significant increase in funding per student for those aged 16-19 years old in education in 2020/21 – and we have announced that this will be maintained this academic year.”

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