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Should some subject areas be compulsory for A-Level students? The debate rages on…

  • 27 September 2021

In today’s blog, Nick Hillman, considers some of the critiques of last week’s HEPI paper on the humanities, which proposed broadening the curriculum in the last phase of schooling.

A broad church

As the Director of a non-aligned think tank, you don’t only go out to defend the reports you personally happen to agree with. You also promote good natured and well-informed debate on reports you’ve published because they are interesting and important and have been through a peer-review system (as all HEPI’s long reports must). This remains true even if a report might go somewhat against what you personally believe.

For example, we’ve published good pieces arguing for and against academic selection in school. No one could possibly agree with both as their arguments are diametrically opposed to one another. Yet I defend both as useful contributions to an important and unsettled debate. We’ve also published a paper pushing for means-tested tuition fees that I batted for on the Today programme even though I had previously written another HEPI report rejecting the very idea of differential fees.

Just as it is appropriate for a newspaper to publish a range of views, so it is appropriate for a charitable think tank to do so. The clue is in that description: our job is to encourage people to think issues through in more detail, but it is not to tell them exactly what to think – we leave that to the politically aligned and more ideological think tanks of every persuasion.

Compulsion versus pick-and-mix

Which all brings us to last week’s HEPI paper on the state of the humanities by English teacher, Gabriel Roberts. It has led to a particularly fervent debate – more lively than I ever expected, given how nuanced the paper is. This discussion focused particularly on the right curriculum options at Key Stage 5 (that’s 16 to 18, Years 12 and 13 or sixth form). Many teachers, in particular, strongly dislike the idea that people taking an academic pathway could be directed to study a balance of disciplines, and more than three of them, right up to the age of 18.

Despite being taken aback by the strength of some of the pushback, like many of those who’ve chosen to respond to the report I’ve generally been sceptical of insisting people should do a broader range of subjects at 16 to 18.

My reluctance stems, in part, from my first career, as a History teacher: as a subject specialist school teacher, you typically want the people who like your subject the most or our best at it to take it and you then want them to spend as much time as possible on your subject rather than others. (Departments within schools have been known to fight like cats and dogs to persuade the pupils they most want to take their subject at A-Level.) 

In contrast, it is more challenging to teach people close to adulthood if your subject is merely their fifth or sixth choice. Whisper it quietly, but of course many teachers regard their A-Level classes as a haven compared to a boisterous mixed-ability Year 10 form because people have opted to be there out of a clear choice.

My reluctance to support the general drift towards support for a broader sixth-form curriculum has also stemmed from my own education: I did better in my A-Levels than my GCSEs because I could finally focus on the subjects I really enjoyed (two of which I hadn’t even studied at GCSE).

But the compulsory phase of education should not be set around the desires of any one teacher or any one student; it should be about what is best for the greatest number of students as well as the society in which they reside. (One of the greatest challenges of working in education policy is getting beyond personal views that are based entirely on someone’s own schooling – as almost everyone has been to school, everyone can claim to be an expert.)

Gabriel’s paper argues strongly, as does another HEPI paper out soon, that a broader study programme in Years 12 and 13 would bring us more in line with other countries, would help keep young people’s options open for longer and would deliver a closer match between the supply of and demand for skills.

Yes, it also suggests more people might then apply to do humanities at university, which got some people’s goat too. It would be odd if it didn’t, given the focus of the paper was on the humanities. But this is not, in contrast to what many people seemed to think, its main goal. The paper suggests more Y12 and Y13 pupils should take Maths too. That specific recommendation is more likely to boost applications for Maths than applications for English, even it if might usefully ensure those who do apply for English are somewhat more numerate.

Arguments against the current system

Oddly, those criticising the idea of a broader curriculum in the latter phase of the compulsory part of education (only one small part of the paper – do read it all!) have been reluctant to engage with the actual arguments put forward.

So below I try to respond to some of their critiques.

  • Some of the critics seemed very reluctant to consider what goes on in other countries – and even within some of the UK. It has been an oddly parochial debate. There were at times an implicit nationalistic tinge to the critiques, as if England and Wales definitely have the best system in the world and other high-performing nations have it wrong. Yet maybe, just maybe, one reason we are very much at the bottom of the European league table for familiarity with other languages, for example, is to do with the narrowness of our offer? In Scotland, taking more than three subjects in the final years of schooling, which encourages a broader mix, is normal – as it was in England before AS-Levels bit the dust – so, even within the British Isles, taking more than three subjects is not extraordinary. New research for the Royal Society shows the current English system is even narrower than it was a few years ago, as more people are choosing subjects close to one another in scope rather than a broader mix.
  • People in arts education in particular seemed to think they would lose from a different approach to sixth-form education (see the Tweet below from from ‘Art Teacher’) but I suspect it is more likely that they would gain as pipelines would stay open for longer. It would mean more people being versed in more disciplines as they reach adulthood, even if many subjects were still to be given up at 18. I can well understand why there is confusion here, given the impact of past curriculum changes: when the EBacc was introduced, it typically meant a narrowing of choices, with a negative impact on the creative arts in particular (covered in HEPI Policy Note 2 by Professor John Last). But the idea put forward by Gabriel Roberts in his new humanities paper is in the opposite direction: it is aimed at broadening not narrowing. As a result, many disciplines that currently fall by the wayside for most pupils could be rejuvenated – and it would have the added benefit of making the provision of more options viable at sixth-form level.
  • Much of the opposition to the new paper focused on specific people for whom a new system might not have worked out so well (see the example from Twitter below). Clearly no one education system works brilliantly for everyone. It is why I personally strongly believe in diversity of provision, so there are different routes with interconnecting pathways (a climbing frame, not two ladders). But these critics displayed incredible certainty over how other people’s life trajectories would pan out in a different world with a little more compulsion. I wonder if we can be so certain about other people’s educational choices in practice? Finding an accurate counter-factual (‘what would happen if…’) is notoriously difficult. Besides, it is not as if we have anything like a free-for-all now: at the moment, people’s A-Level choices are limited by things like what options are offered by their school or college and timetabling considerations. It is nothing like a smörgåsbord in which everyone gets to choose exactly what they want.
  • There was particularly strong pushback to the idea that anyone should be compelled to study (or do) anything ever, as in the Tweet below from a primary-level teacher. This strikes me as particularly odd. We don’t let pupils at Key Stages 1, 2, 3 or 4 have complete freedom over what they study, so why would this suddenly be the right approach at ages 16 to 18, which is – of course – still part of the compulsory phase of education (with some form of education or training necessary these days up to the age of 18)? We would never dream of letting people who have rejected the more academic route choose exactly what they study: we wouldn’t let a Level 3 Gas Engineer Apprentice reject the safety aspects of his or her training so that they can spend more time on welding. Compulsion is at the heart of education and it has to be. How else will you find out what you love or the connections between disciplines if you are simply allowed to study whatever takes your fancy at any point and to leave everything else behind? Such progressive norms were surely proven not to work many years ago and, despite the end of Nick Gibb’s tenure at the Department for Education, they are unlikely to make a comeback any time soon.

There may be an attractive simplicity to the idea but giving people complete freedom would actually indicate a strange lack of faith in our school and college students; it suggests they are incapable of doing anything other than what they already know to be among their absolute top three favourite subjects at the age of 16. Yet how many people have we all met who regret narrowing their choices so much when they were young? I can even think of one past Chancellor of the Exchequer who, in a conversation about science funding, told me they wished they had taken a wide range humanities and science subjects for longer.

giving people complete freedom would actually indicate a strange lack of faith in our school and college students; it suggests they are incapable of doing anything other than what they already know to be among their absolute top three favourite subjects at the age of 16

Finally, there might be a lesson here in the act of persuasion. The attacks Gabriel Roberts’s paper received were typically so unthinking (some were clearly from people who had read one article on the report rather than the report itself), they actually made me more sympathetic to the arguments in the paper and less sympathetic to the arguments of those attacking it. This is not me being unsually difficult; it is how persuasion generally works.

The art of persuasion

When the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF) spent two years considering how to get people to take tackling the blight of poverty more seriously, they concluded how the issue is framed is crucially important – with brutal simplicity, they proposed starting with the issue, in this instance poverty, ‘not politics or ideology’. I often think of this important work when I consider how we communicate the desires of the higher education sector to those beyond it. The JRF argument may seem to reach a deceptively simple conclusion but it is striking how often we forget the lesson in education policy – and of course the limitations of some social media, such as Twitter, can make it exceptionally hard to frame debates sensibly. If you doubt this, look at the conversation on the current row over new industrial action in universities; sadly, it’s become more about ideology than about the terms and conditions of staff.

On the cusp of adulthood

One last thing: the lively debate last week over Gabriel’s paper shows once again how big an appetite there is for writing on issues that straddle the compulsory stage of education and the voluntary, post-18, stage. Time and time again, we see at HEPI how much interest there is among both people in schools / colleges and people working in higher education in those issues that straddle these two parts of the education sector. So if you have something that is worth saying on the topic, do please let us know.

1 comment

  1. Huy Duong says:

    Dear Nick,

    What about not making any A-level subject compulsory but redesign A-levels so that the normal number of subjects taken is five or six instead of three?

    Despite doing four A-levels that I enjoyed and using all of them at university, I regret that my education is too narrow. Such narrowing is somewhat pointless for many people because they work in fields that are not directly related to their degrees or A-levels.

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