English A-levels: Purposeless, Vocationless… The dying Arts.


This week I checked our potential figures for English Language and English Literature sixth form classes in September. They currently stand at the lowest figures in my 5 years as Head of Faculty. Why the downturn? Our GCSE results are consistently high, the teachers are popular, our marketing on open evening was strong –

Or was it?

Speaking to colleagues from other schools, there seems to be a relentless trend from students towards Science, Maths, Economics – sixth form subjects with a clear future career pathway.

Do we need to adapt the marketing direction of our subjects if we want to recover the higher numbers that we used to take for granted?

I think we do. I’m pretty certain, with the shamefully high tuition fees parents are going to have to stump up for Uni, the majority are going to make damn sure that their son/daughter not only has ‘a plan’ at age 16 (scary in itself) and is not going to study something for the mere love of it, and God forbid -just because they’re good at it.

Many of my students tell me they enjoy, even love English, but it’s no good for ‘what they want to do’.

It seems to me that potentially English Language and Lit teachers have for too long relied on the ‘traditional’ angle – the vague line that Universities respect it. Well I’m not sure that’s concrete enough to change the minds of many waverers.

We talk equally proudly of the empathy skills, communication quality, etc that our subjects nurture, but again, I think that this is too general, and not convincing students or parents. After all, what’s stopping them effectively ‘doing English Literature’ by reading a few books in the evening and maybe discussing them with someone? Ok -devil’s advocate played too far, but you see where I’m going?

My solution is that in this hard nosed, expensive, new educational landscape, English teachers need to stop trying to simply enthuse about the lives and works of Bronte or Plath (wonderful as they are) and liaise with a whole range of professionals in a range of careers who found studying characters, ideas, writing impeccably structured writing – useful, and make these experiences explicit throughout the year, and particularly at Open evening.

We need to expand our awareness and understanding of the sheer range of careers studying English at a higher level can help open doors in. Every other subject does it – and we are being left behind.

We need specifics from the exceptionally well regarded legal profession for example, as to how first class argument skills (that we hone in English) are vital, and use this information with parents.

Our whole marketing angle needs to change, or in 10 years, our subjects (whilst THE most important at GCSE) will sink without trace at A-level, chosen only by a handful of students with nostalgic parents, or those directionless drifters who just read for the love of it 😉

Trying to encourage students to take your subject at A-level because they enjoyed some of the poems at GCSE just doesn’t cut it any more.




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