The law of unintended consequences – how a greater emphasis on academic rigour is leading to a decline in academic subjects.

This last week has been a defining week for another cohort of Year 13 students as they have collected their A levels and used them to confirm their place on the next stage. In truth, it has been a week of few major headlines – a slight dip in A and A* grades, entries for girls in Science overtaking boys, minor controversy around grade thresholds in Maths.

However, what was also reported is that in the last year, there has been a 13% decline in the number of students studying English at A Level. This is on the back of a precipitous drop in the proportion of students studying languages over the last few years, and a slow decline in the proportion of students studying History and Geography. Although Science entries are up, most of the subjects traditionally at the heart of the curriculum seem to be in decline (Maths has also declined this year, amid concerns over the impact of new GCSEs).

The irony is that the opposite should be happening, and that the explicit policy direction over the last decade has been to strengthen the traditional curriculum. The introduction of the concept of the EBacc, now a Government ambition for 90% of students at KS4 (monitored by Ofsted), the compulsory resitting of English and Maths in 6th Forms, the downgrading of vocational qualifications – all should be bolstering traditional academic subjects.

The truth is that they’re not, and this decline is moving swiftly past the alarming stage to become irreversible.

When major curriculum or exam reform happens, the impact is not always seen instantly, and can take a few years to work through the system. These reforms are not piecemeal or incoherent. They are based on a Gove-ian vision of the curriculum that asserts that students (and society) are best-served by a rigorous focus on challenging subject matter delivered through a Hirschian ‘knowledge-rich’ curriculum. They have been supported by policy initiatives, such as EBacc, redesign of performance tables including Progress 8, and the new Ofsted curriculum focus.

I accept that they are based on aspiration and a sincere belief that this approach leads to improvement, including for less-advantaged students. As Michael Gove said at the start of his journey: ‘If our state schools were a little more elitist, if they tested their pupils with greater rigour and frequency and brought home the difference between failure and success more forcibly they would have more pupils at Oxford.’

However, there appear to be problems. English is the area that has raised the greatest alarms this time round. According to a report in The Guardian, English language A-level numbers dropped from just under 18,000 in 2018 to less than 14,000 this year. Uptake was also down for English literature, from 41,000 to 37,500. Teachers and school leaders put the blame fairly and squarely at the door of new ‘more rigorous’ GCSE courses, courses that require hugely increased amounts of rote learning, greater use of historical texts and analysis of excerpts. By the time they get to 16, many students have had enough.

The report quoted an assistant headteacher who said: “GCSE English language is sucking the joy out of the study of how we communicate: the power and beauty in words. English literature favours those with excellent memories; it has reduced our most magnificent pieces of writing to a collection of quotations.”

Geoff Barton, the general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, added: “It is right that we should have the highest aspirations for all our students, but this should not equate to turning exams into a joyless slog. We are concerned that the current GCSE specifications are failing to encourage a love of English in young people and this year’s entries at A-level appear to confirm

The Department for Education was quick to express that reformed GCSEs in English are “better preparing pupils for further study at A-level.” Well, that may be true, but if they’re not studying it at A Level, it’s irrelevant.

Languages are an area that I have a particular interest in. Simply put, many students no longer study languages at KS5 because they’re too hard and too boring. I’ve had lots of conversations with students to try and convince them of the life-expanding benefits of learning a language, of the range of art and literature that opens up when you learn another language, of the joys of overseas study and the many employment possibilities that open up for language graduates. But it comes down to this – ‘I need the best A-levels possible to get into the best university possible and I’ve got two years to get them, so why would I pick a subject that is too hard and too boring.’ It’s an argument I usually lose.

GCSE language specs are formulaic, dry and lacking in relevance. The saddest thing I can say about them is that in my experience, the ability to speak and understand a language with any level of fluency or improvisation is almost irrelevant to success at GCSE. I applaud the amazing MFL teachers out there who work tirelessly to breathe joy into the moribund corpse of the GCSE MFL curriculum, but they’re very often flogging a dead horse.

I’m in favour of supporting our declining EBacc subjects. I’m totally in favour of academic rigour and challenging our brightest students. However, I’m also in favour of looking at the evidence, and changing a policy that’s not working. This is not an argument about pedagogy or instruction, or knowledge-based approaches – it’s an argument that in a buyer’s market, we need a product we can sell.

How have we got to the point where some of the glories of our education and culture – the study of history, geography, literature, even mathematics – are seen as a chore, or irrelevant by so many? How is it that subjects that should open a door into understanding the world don’t seem relevant to the culture and society of young people?

We need curriculum content that combines modern and historical voices, that draws from sources across the world, that reflects the reality of our students’ world with due diversity in race, gender, sexuality and disability. We also need a balance between content acquisition and student agency, between knowledge and acquisition. Most of all, we need to understand that to get Key Stage 5 right, we need to start with Key Stage 4.