A level, Education Reform, post-16

Narrowing A level choices put students’ futures at risk

A level choices are less diverse than ever, with potential risks to students’ futures. Schools and policy makers alike can and should act, writes David Robinson

A level choices are less diverse than ever, with potential risks to students’ futures. Schools and policy makers alike can and should act, writes David Robinson

19 Sep 2021, 5:00

On 14 March 2013, then education secretary Michael Gove wrote to Ofqual’s chief regulator, Glenys Stacy. The letter concerned A level reforms the government had set in motion.

Back then, A levels consisted of two equally weighted parts: the AS level, taken in the first year, and an A2 assessed at the end of the second year.

Concerned that this modular approach to A levels was causing a loss of depth of study and leaving young people poorly prepared for higher education, the government tasked Ofqual with developing the new and now separate A and AS levels we see today.

In his letter, Michael Gove stated that he recognised the benefits of the breadth offered to students by A levels and was “keen to preserve this”.

But fast-forward to today, and this is not what has happened.

New research from the Education Policy Institute, supported by the Royal Society, shows that the diversity of level 3 subjects taken in the 16-to-19 phase has dramatically fallen since 2010. The proportion of students taking qualifications from three or more of the main subject groups – that’s maths, science, languages, humanities and vocational – has halved over the decade.

Most of this decline in subject diversity took place after the government began the roll-out of the reformed A levels in 2015, when take-up of AS levels began to decline. But this was also magnified by falls in per-student funding since 2010, and a funding formula that no longer backs extra AS levels.

Schools must not see securing university access for their students as simply the endgame

These changes should concern schools, because they can make a difference to employment outcomes for students. Our research suggests that students who take a greater mix of level 3 subjects see a small boost to their earnings by the time they reach their mid-twenties.

Those with a greater variety of subjects covering at least two of the main subject areas go on to earn 3 to 4 per cent more than those who had subjects from only one main subject area. These positive earnings are in line with other factors, such as the status of university attended, that have a growing influence on earnings later into a career.

We also know that having a broader set of skills is likely to provide students with more resilience for the world of work, giving them opportunities to move into different roles. But with their subject choices now exceedingly narrow, such benefits risk being out of reach.

What does all of this mean for schools and colleges making decisions about their provision? And how should they guide the decisions of students?

Clearly teachers will first and foremost be informed by the ability and aspirations of their students. But our research suggests that subject choice matters for students well beyond access to university courses.

Schools and colleges must therefore not see securing access for their students to competitive university places as simply the endgame – the long-term matters too. The choices they make at 16 may continue to affect their employment outcomes well into their careers.

Given there are likely benefits to a broad education at this age, teachers should also ensure that pupils have considered the full range of subject options.

Having a funding system that is able to support this approach would certainly help to support greater subject breadth. To prevent A level choices from narrowing further, we’ve called on the government to review current funding arrangements, which hinder the take-up of an additional AS level. This should also be met with a wider review of 16-to-19 funding in England, which has suffered significant real-terms cuts since 2010.

The government’s reforms to A levels nearly a decade ago have evidently failed to achieve their stated aim of maintaining subject diversity. To better support students’ progression, it must act to ensure that our already uniquely narrow 16-to-19 education is not squeezed further still.

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