Students’ subject choices at A-level have become “exceedingly narrow”, with the proportion of pupils in England studying subjects across at least three of the main subject groups half what it was in 2010, the Royal Society has warned.
The average 18-year-old now leaves compulsory education with qualifications from fewer than two of the main subject groups – science, maths, languages, humanities and vocational.
In 2010, 38% students took A-levels or equivalent covering three or more of these groups, but by 2019, just 17% did. The study from the Education Policy Institute (EPI), commissioned by the Royal Society, warns this could harm further study and employment opportunities.
Only one in 100 students now takes A-levels or equivalent from four or more subject groups, down from almost one in 10 in 2010. The decline in diverse A-level subject choices was steepest between 2016 and 2019, dropping 14-percentage points.
Students in England “narrow” their subjects far earlier than in most countries, often pursuing just three up to the age of 18. In South Korea, for example, students taking the College Scholastic Ability Test are usually assessed in six subjects, typically including maths, Korean and English. Sounding the alarm to ministers and policymakers in England, the Royal Society warns this “uniquely narrow offer is becoming narrower still”.
We need to prioritise equipping all young people with the opportunity to develop the broad knowledge, skills and experience that they will need to adapt to a rapidly changing, technology-rich world – Professor Ulrike Tillmann, the Royal Society
After controlling for student prior attainment and other factors, the impact of studying a greater range of subjects at A-level has a similar effect on early career salaries to factors such as the university attended by a student or their socio-economic background, researchers say.
Students who perform less well at GCSE are more likely to pursue a narrow field of subjects at A-level. Disadvantaged students, Gypsy/Roma and Black Caribbean students tend to make the least diverse A-level subject choices.
The report suggests that the decision to decouple AS-levels from A2s during the tenure of education secretary Michael Gove could be partly responsible. Researchers also warned that key stage five spending cuts could be a contributory factor. The decision to make languages non-compulsory at GCSE may also partly explain the trend.
“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,” said Professor Ulrike Tillmann, chair of the Royal Society Education Committee. “This is at odds with the growing evidence that the UK needs to head towards offering a broader education system.”
She continued: “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. We need to prioritise equipping all young people with the opportunity to develop the broad knowledge, skills and experience that they will need to adapt to a rapidly changing, technology-rich world.”
David Robinson, report author and director of post-16 and skills at the 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.”