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English and Media Centre survey into A Level recruitment: summary report

In October 2019 The English and Media Centre carried out a survey into recruitment to A Level English subjects, English Literature, English Language and English Language and Literature. This was a follow-up to our 2017 survey which first alerted policymakers and stakeholders to the seriousness of the decline in numbers.
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Since our first survey, the decline has been widely reported. Figures published by the Joint Council for Qualifications (2019) show a 31% decline across all three English subject specialisms between 2012 and 2019, with a 13.5% decline between 2018 and 2019. The decline in A Level English Language and Literature is most alarming, with a 56% reduction since 2011. The picture is almost as bad for A Level English Language, where the figure is 42%. For A Level English Literature the number is 25%.[1]

Reasons for the accelerating decline are several and complex. In our last survey, teachers identified the role played by the promotion of STEM subjects, for example, and the reduction in numbers of subjects taken as a result of A Level reform and the withering of the AS qualification. The decline, though, has not been nearly so marked in other Humanities subjects. It is also worth noting that there has seems to have been no comparable decline in Scotland, where students sit a different set of examinations and English remains a vibrant, popular subject.

We wanted this survey to probe more deeply into what lies behind the numbers. What impact is this decline having on schools and colleges on the ground? Why do teachers think it is happening?

Two major themes emerged from the survey:

  • That the decline is even starker than the raw figures suggest, affecting English Language and Language and Literature particularly badly but also damaging A Level Literature;
  • That GCSE English Language plays a major role in turning large numbers of this generation of students off English.

(For English Literature A Level, teachers continue to feel that a move away from reading for pleasure is a factor but they did not choose to comment on this at length, perhaps because this has been a long-term concern. A further survey into reading for pleasure and the KS3 curriculum would be very valuable).

Theme 1: Looking behind the raw figures

i. The decline in numbers is system-wide

The following percentages of respondents reported a decline in numbers in line with the national picture or worse:

  • 79% of respondents for A Level Literature
  • 82% of respondents for A Level Language
  • 99% of respondents for A Level Language and Literature

(Note that the national picture figures given to EMC survey respondents were for the exam entries in 2019. These are the students who took up the subject in 2017. The Oct 2019 survey question was about the current recruitment picture, two years on. These suggest a continuing or worsening decline in line with that of 2017. The 2021 official statistics for entries should confirm this view.)

The numbers reporting an increase in recruitment were very small:

  • 4% of schools teaching A Level Literature
  • 6% of schools teaching A Level Language
  • 0% of schools teaching A Level Language and Literature

ii. Courses are closing in large numbers

Of the schools that responded:

  • 1% once offered AL Literature but no longer do so (2 schools)
  • 15% once offered AL Language but no longer do so (19 schools)
  • 47% once offered AL Language and Literature but no longer do so (34 schools)

Scaled up, this points to a national picture in which hundreds of schools and colleges no longer offer A Levels in English Language or combined English Language and Literature. With fewer courses on offer, figures are almost certain to decline further in the next few years.

iii. Classes are being cut in large numbers

Where schools still offer English A Levels, they often have far fewer classes than they did recently.

‘We used to fill two classes per year group for A Level English Literature and now have just one class for Year 12 and one for Year 13.’

‘We used to offer two sets for Literature at A Level, with cohorts between 20 and 25 entries. Now, we’ve had our sets reduced to one, with class sizes between 6 and 9.’

iv. Class sizes are close to unsustainable in several schools and colleges

‘Our class size has reduced from 15-20 to 4-8 students.’

‘We used to have approximately 20/22 students wanting to study English Lit - numbers have consistently fallen over the past years to around 10 to 2 this year.’

‘Literature numbers have collapsed to single figures.’

‘Language has gone from around 20 pupils to 3-4.’

‘We used to have all three subjects flourishing, now we only have a Lang/Lit course of 10 students.’

‘I love teaching A Level but it is becoming very difficult with smaller classes as discussions become stilted and too teacher-led.’

Theme 2: The role played by GCSEs, particularly English Language

i. GCSE English the major cause of decline

Teachers were offered a list of nine reasons as to why recruitment might be in decline.

‘Students not enjoying GCSE English’ was the top ranked reason when looking at all three English A Levels in combination.

‘Students not enjoying GCSE English’ was also the top ranked reason identified for a decline in A Level English Language and combined A Level English Language and Literature recruitment.

‘Students not enjoying GCSE English’ was the third ranked reason identified by teachers as the reason for a decline in A Level Literature recruitment.

‘STEM being seen as the best option in HE and for employment’ was the top ranked reason identified for a decline in A Level Literature recruitment.

These comments were typical of what was said about the experience of doing English GCSE subjects:

‘Students hate the GCSE and seem to be being taught ‘English by numbers’. It is definitely putting them off.’

‘The new GCSE specifications have really killed the joy of English.’

‘GCSE syllabuses just aren’t sufficiently stimulating and engaging - students are switched off.’

ii. GCSE English Language is a bigger factor than Literature

Comments were particularly critical of the role played by GCSE English Language in putting students off the subject. It was described as ‘dull’, ‘dry’, ‘joyless’, ‘narrow’, ‘off-putting, ‘relentless’, ‘limiting’, ‘outdated, and ‘awful’, with only a tiny minority having anything positive to say about it.

‘GCSE English Language is dry, dull and difficult and disaffects students of all ability levels.’

‘Students often find English language GCSE very dull and I think this puts them off further study.’

iii. GCSE English Literature offers a mixed picture

There was less unanimity about GCSE English Literature having a negative effect on A Level recruitment. However, a very large number of teachers did raise concerns. The view of those teachers in their detailed comments was that the narrow choice of texts, lack of diversity, the absence of coursework, the emphasis on closed books and on memorisation were a contributing factor to students’ decisions not to take the subject further.

‘Texts for GCSE literature are often not seen as relevant, so enjoyment has dropped.’

‘... the texts chosen for study are largely white, male and old. This makes English Literature seem outdated and dry- this does not help recruitment.’

iv. Inadequate links between GCSE and A Level, especially for Language

Teachers felt the lack of continuity between GCSEs and A Levels in terms of disciplinary content and approaches was off-putting for students. This was particularly the case with Language A Level, where there is nothing in the GCSE to give any sense of what the A Level might be like – no language study, or investigative work to whet students’ appetite for further study.

‘The Language paper does not prepare them very well. Where is the spoken language element? It is a very dry exam.’

‘For Language, the GCSE is so redundant in relation to A Level that they barely see a connection between them.’

v. Social justice implications

Several private schools reported teaching the IGCSE, a qualification not available to state school students. These schools reported smaller declines in recruitment, raising serious concerns about the social justice implications of the current GCSEs: it suggests state school students are being given a different, perhaps more impoverished, diet that is more likely to put them off further study.

'We do iGCSE Edexcel, which leads very effectively to A Level.'

'We are fortunate in being able to offer IGCSE English Language and Literature (CIE). Although there are issues with these specs, I feel they are better and more engaging than the new 2015 GCSEs.'

'We do IGCSE which is much better preparation and feed into A Level'

'We follow IGCSE, which is a good lead-in to A Level.'

How the survey was carried out

  • The survey was carried out by the English and Media Centre in October 2019 on behalf of the Common English Forum. This is an umbrella group of organisations representing English subject specialisms at all levels from primary to university.
  • The survey was open to all English teachers, who were alerted to it via our email list and social media accounts. 207 schools took part. All of these provided data about A Level English Literature, 124 about A Level Language and 72 about combined A Level Language and Literature.

Notes

[1] Sources of statistics in full report – Joint Council for Qualifications (2012 and 2016-19) and GCE Inter-Board Statistics for breakdown of figures for different subjects in 2011.

The full report, including appendices is available to download here.

Comments

Another significant factor is the amount of content in the GCSE English Literature specification. English Literature is a largely skills-based subject and there is no need to burden GCSE students (who generally have 7 or 8 other subjects to study for) with so many texts. Reducing the burden by getting rid of the unseen poetry and the nineteenth century text would make the syllabus more manageable without affecting the quality of the skills being taught. Students would feel they have time to focus on the remaining texts and enjoyment would increase. If schools feel they need to begin GCSE English studies in year 9 in order to get through it all, it speaks volumes about the excessive content in the Specification. No wonder the children are bored by the time they get to the end of year 11. By David Emery on 11th Dec 2019
Many thanks for asking me to respond to the survey results. I do find it really worrying and concerning that there appears to be a decline in the number of students opting to study A Level English. By Jane Jackson Head of English SLGGS Canterbury Kent on 11th Dec 2019
This year, to help improve recruitment for Literature A level, I've been encouraging my keen year 11 literature students to get involved with all the extra-curricular Post 16 events we provide for out sixth form students. A few weeks back, we invited an associate lecturer and PHD student in to share her research relating to ecocritical perspectives. Last night we took some of our GCSE students along with us to see 'Death of A Salesman' in the West End. Next up - a review writing competition. Here's the write up for the school newspaper:

The Play’s the Thing

Only after sitting through Samuel West’s Hamlet as a sixth former did I finally ‘get it’: what tragedy is really all about. Not the number of syllables in a line or who’s soliloquising when, or where, or exactly why there’s another possible moment of anagnorisis. All of this scrupulous deciphering of the text becomes seemingly irrelevant once you’re sat in the auditorium and experiencing first hand, the almost tangible and incredibly harrowing emotions of all the characters on stage.

For our sixth form students, there was a real buzz in the air as we made our way to the West End on the eve of the election: our fears undoubtedly amplified by all the noise reverberating up and down the country. But for Miller’s tragedy of the common man, ‘Death of A Salesman’, we were not to be transported to the lofty heights of chivalric castles; there was nothing ‘rotten in the state of Denmark’ this evening, no smiling villains tonight (at least not on this stage).

Instead we found ourselves squashed into the Grand Circle of the Picadilly Theatre, checking out the repair work on the ceiling (the cast quite literally brought the house down on the opening night).

Plastering sorted - the show must go on!

As the curtain rose, I was reminded again of my own 6th form trip to see Samuel West’s Hamlet: minimalist, grey, angular...surely not another Orwellian reinterpretation of an A level set text tragedy? The boundaries of the Loman brother’s bedroom marked out with what looked like concrete slabs, uncannily similar to the battlements of Elsinore that jutted out from the stage floor of the Barbican at the turn of the century; I found myself wistfully consuming yet another brutally stark set design reflecting the political unrest of the times. So, not too many decades later, looking down on the Loman’s family home without walls, (a dream rising out of reality), I knew my students were sure to experience that very same purging of emotions as we sat up in the gods, faced with the imposing ‘towering, angular shapes’ of Brooklyn apartment buildings, trapped for three gruelling hours of brilliant drama.

We all shared a truly tragic experience: we shared the Loman family’s fears for every unstoppable minute of Wendell Pierce’s phenomenal interpretation of Willy’s inevitable demise. By Act 2 the sobbing in the auditorium was so audible, that the ‘it’ we were all trying to ‘get’ resounded contagiously over the flute playing, swapped with a saxophone for this 21st century interpretation otherwise solidly grounded in the text. Much like your exam essays will be now that you know the play so well grin you’ve got this!

I think going beyond the constraints of the curriculum is the only way forward for recruiting our A level students.
By Gemma Berkin on 12th Dec 2019
Thank you for highlighting the worrying decline in recruitment to English A levels.

I would like to pick up on a couple of points about the role played by 2015 GCSEs. A teacher commented ‘GCSE English Language is dry, dull and difficult and disaffects students of all ability levels.’ This seems to imply that the core of the problem is the design of the 2015 GCSEs in English Language. The assessment of English Language seems to be being conflated with the ‘subject’ English Language. There are no set approaches or ‘texts’ for teaching GCSE English Language. Teachers could deliver a rich diet of exciting lessons for GCSE English Language and move to thinking about the format of the assessment much later in the KS4 period when the skills needed were well-established. The fact that many teachers feel constrained by the 2015 qualifications may be derived from their schools’ ideas about how the GCSE should be taught, in turn informed by Ofsted expectations rather than any intrinsic ‘error’ in the design of the 2015 qualifications.

On the missing links between GCSE English Language and A level English Language, this too might be about how the GCSE is delivered rather than anything in the specification. Writing for specific purposes and audiences, or the differences between spoken and written language are intrinsic parts of the GCSE and A level. So, maybe teachers can take their classroom talk at GCSE one step further to give a sense of how the GCSE-level approach leads into A level study. The absence of language study or investigative work is also raised as a shortcoming of the 2015 GCSE. Whilst some teachers did enjoy the ‘Spoken Language Study’ that formed part of Edexcel’s 2010 GCSE English Language, many found it very challenging to teach aspects of sociolinguistics and to use the terminology of discourse analysis, as most secondary English teachers, if subject specialists, tend to be literature graduates.

For GCSE English Literature, Edexcel has responded to perceptions like this ‘the texts chosen for study are largely white, male and old’ by adding two new plays and two new novels by living, tweeting British writers from different backgrounds, as well as a new collection of poems reflecting a sense of belonging through identity, culture, heritage, nature or friendship http://bit.ly/2t9lAKF. We started spreading the word on this with our free student DiversityInLit conference in November, which gave students the chance to see and interact with writers from diverse backgrounds in the flesh. Teachers and students can access the recording of the event. We will be offering another free DiversityInLit student conference in October 2020. Do let us know whether you are intending to teach the new texts on offer. You can respond to a poll on Twitter or the English community.

At A level, Edexcel is also continuously looking for ways to help students and teachers engage with a broader range of texts beyond the most obvious canon. Students can use our British Asian, Black British, or LGBTQ+ literature guides to select texts for coursework or simply increase their experience of the forms literature can take and the themes it can explore.

One teacher suggests that the volume of texts for GCSE English Literature is problematic. Students are required to study three texts and fifteen poems over five terms (not including the summer of Y11). I think we are seriously underestimating our 14-16 year-olds if we suggest that in four or five periods a week of English they can’t engage with less than 1 text per term. If we want students to be excited about literature, they should read more not less. Perhaps we need to recalibrate how we teach texts. We can sample texts and do some ‘macro-reading’ rather than poring over the detail of a small number of texts. We can set texts up in opposition so that aspects of each act as foils. So, why not teach Boys Don’t Cry and Pride and Prejudice together comparing the impact of societal views on characters. Or just surround one of your set texts such as A Christmas Carol with interesting thematically linked extracts from texts of all different types and ages.

Another suggestion is the removal of the nineteenth-century text. This would suggest that students can only engage with the contemporary and deprive them of the joys of so many fantastic texts. How would students cope with the range of texts over time that they study at A level if their experience of texts at GCSE was narrowed?

If students are in any doubt as to why they should choose an English A level, they can take a look at our ‘Why choose’ posters, or your own ‘Why study English?’
By clare haviland on 16th Dec 2019
Thank you for responding in such detail, Clare. Briefly in reply, we were reporting on what 207 teachers said in response to the question of why AL recruitment was falling. This is what they said. I'm sure that a more detailed survey of GCSE itself might throw up some of the issues you raise and allow for more teasing out of whether teachers feel 'obliged' to teach the course in this way, when in fact there is more scope for it to be a pleasurable experience for students. There may well be an element of truth in that. But currently, for whatever reasons, they think it is not pleasurable for students and is contributing to the decline in uptake at AL. They point to a number of the inherent issues that we have listed. As we say in the report, we think that there's an urgent need for more research on all of this. This should also include asking student themselves, to find out whether teachers' perceptions of their reasons for not choosing the subject are right.
It would be interesting to know what your own thoughts are on the accelerating decline in the subject over the past few years, in relation to other Humanities subjects like History. If you think it's not GCSEs, then what is it? (Some of us are currently trying to look at the stats for Scotland, N Ireland and Ireland – where the other possible pressures, like STEM, are similar but the exam system is different, to see whether that gives any clues about what's going wrong in England. I‘ll put something together on this, hopefully, in the New Year)
By Barbara Bleiman on 16th Dec 2019

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