Students’ subject choices at A level have become “exceedingly narrow”, with young people less likely than ever to take up a variety of subjects, a new report warns.

The study from the Education Policy Institute (@EduPolicyInst), commissioned by the Royal Society, finds that the proportion of students with A and AS levels or equivalent covering at least three of the main subject groups such as humanities, sciences, maths and languages, has now halved since 2010.

England already has one of the narrowest curricula in the developed world, with few other rich countries forcing learners to specialise in a small set of subjects from the age of 16.

Researchers caution that this uniquely narrow offer is becoming narrower still, with students increasingly unlikely to take a mix of subjects. The average student now takes subjects from fewer than two of the main subject groups.

Despite these wider trends, when examining the employment outcomes of hundreds of thousands of graduates, the study finds that those who had greater diversity in their A level subjects were likely to see a small boost to their earnings during their mid-twenties; gains which are then expected to be sustained throughout their careers.

After controlling for student prior attainment and other factors, the impact of studying a greater range of subjects at A level is shown to have a similar effect on early career salaries to factors such as the university attended by a student or their socio-economic background.

The research also reveals those groups of students who are more or less likely to study a broader range of subjects. Students who perform well at GCSE are far more likely to go on to study a greater mix of subjects at A level. Conversely, disadvantaged students are much more likely to narrow their choices.

Students from Chinese and Indian backgrounds are shown to study the broadest range of A level subjects, while Black Caribbean and Gypsy/Roma students study the narrowest range.

Reforms introduced under the then Education Secretary Michael Gove, such as the decoupling of AS and A2 levels, are likely to have contributed significantly to the narrowing of A level choices seen today.

The fall seen in funding for 16-19 education also seems to have played an important role. Falls in real terms funding for sixth forms and colleges since 2010 may have led to fewer qualifications being taken, which in turn have contributed to narrower student choices.

To prevent a further narrowing of 16-19 education, researchers urge the government to undertake a wholesale review of 16-19 funding, including reducing cuts, offering more targeted support for disadvantaged students, and ensuring that the funding system no longer discourages the take up of smaller qualifications, such as AS levels.

Key findings from the new study

Students’ A level subject choices are now the narrowest they have ever been

  • The proportion of students with qualifications spanning three or more of the five main subject groups (sciences, maths, languages, humanities, vocational) has halved since 2010. In 2010, 38% students took A levels or equivalent covering 3 or more of these groups, but by 2019, just 17% did.
  • The majority of this decline in subject diversity took place between 2016 and 2019, with a 14-percentage point fall over that period.
  • Since 2017, the average student has taken subjects from fewer than two subject groups. Only 1 in 100 students now takes A levels or equivalent from 4 or more subject groups, down from almost 1 in 10 in 2010.

This appears to be driven by reforms to A levels, including the decoupling of AS levels

  • Reforms in 2013 which meant that AS levels, typically taken in year 12, no longer counted towards final A level grades, meant that an increasing number of students are no longer taking AS levels.
  • This has led to an overall fall in the number of qualifications taken, leading to reduced subject diversity, as well as less teaching time. The average number of qualifications taken fell by 43% between 2016 and 2019, from five to three.

Real terms funding cuts have also contributed to the narrowing of A levels

  • Since 2010, 16-19 education (sixth forms and colleges) has seen significant real terms funding reductions. The latest figures covering much of this period show that funding per student fell by 16% between 2012 and 2019.
  • Falls in real terms funding since 2010 have led to fewer qualifications being made available, which in turn contributed to narrower student choices.
  • The 16-19 funding formula, which funds sixth forms and colleges to deliver their programmes, also plays a role, by providing no incentives to offer an AS level alongside their main three A levels.

Greater subject diversity leads to higher earnings for students during their mid-twenties

  • While much of the difference in earnings associated with a wider range of subjects can be explained by higher student attainment, when accounting for this, graduates who had taken A levels from two or more subject groups earned around 3-4% more in their early careers than those taking qualifications from only one subject group.
  • After controlling for prior attainment and other characteristics, this difference is comparable in effect to factors such as the university attended by a student or their socio-economic background. Such salary gains would be expected continue to grow during individuals’ thirties and forties.

The narrowing of A levels could leave students poorly equipped for the workplace

  • Given the career gains from greater subject diversity at A level, those students taking a narrower range of subjects risk being at a disadvantage to their peers.
  • A broader set of skills is likely to help individuals’ transition into a broader set of jobs, by opening up opportunities in different sectors or following unemployment. Such students may also be able to better withstand any significant changes to the labour market in the future, such as those resulting from technological change.

Certain pupils are more likely to take a narrower set of A levels

  • Those who perform well at GCSE are more likely to study a diverse set of subjects: 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 at GCSE or above take A levels from two or more areas.
  • Disadvantaged students and those with special educational needs are much more likely to take a narrower set of subjects.
  • Students from Chinese and Indian backgrounds are shown to study the broadest range of subjects, covering around 2 subject groups on average, while Black Caribbean and Gypsy/Roma students study the narrowest range, covering 1.5 subject groups.

The government should review its funding offer to avert any further narrowing

  • The government should undertake a wholesale review of 16-19 funding, including reducing funding cuts, offering more targeted support for disadvantaged students, and ensuring that the 16-19 funding formula does not discourage the take up of smaller qualifications, such as AS levels.

Sector Response

Commenting on the research, David Robinson, report author and Director of Post-16 and Skills at the Education Policy Institute (EPI), said:

“The education that sixth form and college students receive in England is already narrower than in most developed countries, but our research shows that over the last decade, it has continued to become even more restricted in the diversity of subjects taken.

“Because of government reforms and over ten 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.

“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.”

Commenting on ‘A narrowing path to success’, a study by the Education Policy Institute (EPI) of A Levels and a narrowing of curriculum breadth, Dr Mary Bousted, Joint General Secretary of the National Education Union, said:  

“This report confirms our fears that curriculum breadth has diminished. Coupled with a change in funding formula, this means students are getting less access now to a broad range of qualifications at level 3 than they were before the reforms were implemented. 

“When the A and AS level reforms were taking place, we were clear that the de-coupling of AS levels from A levels would have a significant detrimental impact on the curriculum offer and on achievement, because the de-coupling of AS levels would disincentivise students to take them in the future. 

“We agree with EPI that the curriculum at level 3 should not be squeezed even further in terms of its breadth, and the government proposal to de-fund Level 3 Applied General Qualifications, such as BTECs, only adds to the reduction in curriculum range available to young people. 

“A broad education is vital for young people and our society in the 21st century. A narrowing of choice at A level will also have a knock-on effect on the subjects which teachers will be qualified to teach in the future, sending us into a downward spiral of diminishing diversity. If government truly wants a 'world-class' education system that promotes both academic achievement and the development of skills for employment, we need both better funding and a thorough review of the assessment and qualifications system.” 

Commenting on a new report by the Education Policy Institute (EPI) today (Tues 14th Sept), Sarah Hannafin, senior policy advisor for school leaders' union NAHT, said:

"Government policy is having a narrowing effect on the curriculum which young people can access. Although the government’s reforms have seen a significant increase in the number of exams that students must take, the breadth of subjects is getting narrower.

"The EBacc measure narrows young people’s options at GCSE and this impacts their choices for sixth form studies. The AS Level qualification has been decimated because these exams no longer count towards a full A Level. And the fall in real terms funding for 16-19 education affects the number of qualifications sixth forms and colleges can offer.

“The government must act to address the negative impact that their reforms and inadequate funding are having on the breadth of education our young people can access, or they will be denying young people the diversity of education and qualifications that will enable them to be successful in our changing and challenging world."

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