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Drop in A-levels diversity, and 4 more EPI findings

Key findings from the Education Policy Institute's report into A-level subject choice.

Key findings from the Education Policy Institute's report into A-level subject choice.

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Students who take more diverse A-levels earn more money than their peers, a new report has found amid warnings government reforms are narrowing subject choice.

Here’s what you need to know from the Education Policy Institute report, commissioned by Royal Society, into A-level subject choice…

1. A-level subject choices ‘narrowest since 2010’

Researchers categorised qualifications over five main subject groups: sciences, maths, languages, humanities and vocational. For each student they then counted the number of qualifications in each of these subject groups, to create a breadth score.

The proportion of students with qualifications spanning three or more of the five main subject groups halved from 38 per cent in 2010, to 17 per cent in 2019.

The fall mainly took place between 2016 and 2019 – with a 14 percentage point drop. In comparison, the proportion of students taking qualifications from only one or two subject groups increased by eight and six percentage points respectively.

Since 2017, the average student now takes A-levels in fewer than two subject groups. Only one in 100 students qualifications from four or more subject groups, compared to 1 in 10 in 2010.

Report author David Robinson said the education sixth form and college students receive 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.”

2. Gove reforms and funding cuts driving change

EPI says the decline in subject diversity “very closely” follows a drop in the number of qualifications taken – the average number of qualifications fell by 43 per cent between 2016 to 2019, from five to three.

Researchers say this has been driven by Michael Gove’s reforms to decouple AS-levels in 2015 and a reduction in funding since 2010.

Entries for AS-level fell dramatically again this year to 53,300 down 33 per cent from 86,970 in 2020. Since 2017, the number of AS-level entries has fallen by 91 per cent.

EPI said the 16-19 funding formula also plays a role by providing no incentives to offer an AS level alongside their main three A-levels.

This has resulted in the total number of teaching hours decreasing by eight per cent or around 71 hours per student, the report says.

3. More subjects could mean higher earnings

The research indicated that 26-year-olds who had studied qualifications from at least two subject groups in the 16-19 phase went on to have earnings three or four percent higher than those who studied qualifications from only one group.

After controlling for prior attainment and other characteristics, the difference had a similar impact to the university a student attended, or their socio-economic background, researchers said.

EPI said that while the effect appears small, “we must consider that we are measuring earnings early in an individual’s career”. Data is not yet available for those in their 30s, but EPI wants to measure this when it is to see if the trend continues.

Robinson said there is a “concern” that is the narrowing of provision continues “many students could miss out on the broad range of skills needed to navigate the future labour market”.

4. Some students hit harder than others

On average, students achieving a grade 4 in GCSE English and maths take qualifications from one subject group, while students achieving grade 7 or above take qualifications from two or more areas.

Both disadvantaged students and students with special education needs are less likely to study a broad range of subjects, the report found.

Also, while students from Chinese and Indian heritage study the broadest range of subjects (2 on average), Black Caribbean and Gypsy or Roma students study the narrowest (1.5).

EPI said this is “concerning” and requires “further attention” from policymakers.

5. ‘Wholesale review’ of 16-19 funding needed

EPI said the government must undertake a “wholesale review” of 16-19 funding to reverse the fall in provision and breadth.

They have renewed calls for greater funding for young people from low income or disadvantaged backgrounds.

Researchers added: “When the government undertook their reforms of A and AS levels they were keen to preserve the additional breadth offered by AS levels.

“This clearly has not happened. The government must act to ensure that England’s already uniquely narrow 16-19 provision is not squeezed further still.”

A DfE spokesperson said the A-level reforms “created more teaching time” without “the sixth form years being dominated by continual exams”.

“In order to continue to support A level students, we made a significant increase in funding per student for those aged 16-19 years old in education in 2020/21 – and we have announced that this will be maintained this academic year.”



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