English A-level applications drop 35% due to new ‘harder’ GCSEs


Schools and colleges are bracing themselves for a “significant” drop in English and maths A-level entries this year as pupils are put off by “tougher” GCSEs.

English looks likely to be the worst hit, with figures shared exclusively with Schools Week showing take-up of the subject at some sixth forms is dropping by 35 per cent, while maths is down about 20 per cent.

Experts say the decline follows the new, tougher GCSEs currently studied by year 11s, with the switch to linear A-levels leaving pupils “less inclined to take a risk” on harder subjects.

Bill Watkin, chief executive of the Sixth Form Colleges Association, said he feared the “love of the subject” for English and maths was “in danger of being overshadowed” by the standards now expected of pupils.

He shared provisional figures from eight colleges with Schools Week, indicating a “potentially significant” drop in take-up of the subjects.

One sixth form revealed that entries to English language and literature A-levels from September 2017 are currently down 35 per cent compared with last year. Entries to maths have fallen about 23 per cent.

Another sixth form fears that its English literature applications will dip 24 per cent, while maths will decrease 10 per cent.

Pupils are getting very low marks on their mocks so their confidence is being knocked

Data from six other sixth forms reveal a similar picture, with English slightly harder hit than maths.

Tougher English and maths GCSEs were introduced for exams this summer.

Higher-tier maths papers, for example, previously devoted 25 per cent to questions at the A and A* level. In this year’s exams, questions relevant to grades 7, 8 and 9, the new equivalent to A and A*, make up half the paper.

Research by the Mathematical Association (MA) shows further evidence of pupils shunning post-16 maths. In a Twitter poll of association members, a third said maths applications were declining in their schools. A second poll said entries for further maths were going down in about two in five schools.

Laura Jenkins, who teaches in Bournemouth, tweeted that her school received 115 applications for maths A-level last year, but this was down to 53 this year.

David Miles, from the MA, said many pupils had been getting “very low marks on their mocks so their confidence is being knocked; thus, they don’t want to take maths further”.

He added: “It also has a double whammy because teachers aren’t confident about the new number grades and are being cautious. They appear to be predicting one grade below what a pupil would usually get and, as such, the pupil is not meeting entry requirements.”

Funding changes for post-16s also mean many schools and sixth-form colleges will now allow pupils to take only three A-levels, which could lead to even lower entries for further maths as it is usually taken as a fourth subject.

Charlie Stripp, director of the National Centre for Excellence in the Teaching of Mathematics, said his organisation was “aware of early indications” of fewer pupils starting A-level maths. But he said the more demanding GCSEs should “be seen as a development”, rather than a deterrent.

A Department for Education spokesperson said: “Our new GCSEs will provide more rigorous content to equip young people with the knowledge and skills they need to succeed in the future.

“The maths GCSE has been designed to match the best internationally and will mean students are better prepared to study this vital subject at A-level.”

Maths A-levels took a similar hit when the two-part AS and A2 levels were introduced in 2002. The change resulted in A-level maths entries dropping 18.5 per cent.

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  1. Some teachers have responded negatively to the changes at GCSE rather than search innovative ways of teaching. This, in addition to a lack of motivation may be responsible for the lack of engagement among students and perhaps the community should reflect on this and ways to support teachers and students.

  2. Ros Lucas

    If students were given much more Career advice and guidance, including as briefly mentioned, they will be more able to cope with A Levels as the GCSEs covered higher content and that studying A Levels will enable them to study at University as long as they achieve grades of C and above, in order to cope.

    They will also be able to apply for Degree or Higher Apprenticeships and/or Internships as many more are coming on stream.

    However, without initial investigation and research, together with greater understanding by completing interest and aptitude questionnaires or even psychometric testing such as offered by the Morrisby Organisation, they will be unable to make decisions wisely.

    Is it really any surprise that so many youngsters drop out and/or want to change courses when they get to university……

  3. Jenny

    The evidence for a drop of 35 per cent is from 6 schools – not a sufficiently large sample. Twitter is anecdotal and probably not terribly reliable. Some people don’t want hard GCSE but why should we not expect the best from all children and teach all children assuming they can get an A? It’s patronising and increasing social divide to want easy exams.We need to make all children as clever as possible to increase life chances and that will not be achieved with easy exams.

    • Wendy

      Jenny, just read your reply and if it were possible to teach all children to assume they could get an “A” we would. But we know that GCSEs are norm referenced not criteria referenced. A success for my pupils can only be gained at a loss for someone elses. However students do, the same percentage will fail, the same percentage will get a “9”. The difficulty or otherwise makes no difference to how many get the top grades.