A-level data reveals mixed picture of health of the SHAPE subjects, the British Academy finds

18 Aug 2022

This year’s Joint Council for Qualifications (JCQ) A-levels data reveal a mixed picture of the health of the SHAPE disciplines (Social Sciences, Humanities and the Arts for People and the Economy) in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, with some growing in popularity and others suffering further declines in student numbers.

The data show growth in student numbers for many SHAPE subjects, including political studies (+11%), business studies (+10%), law (+6%) and economics (+9%). Other SHAPE subjects such as geography (+6%) and psychology (+11%) have also grown in popularity. However, since last year, student numbers have fallen for English literature (by 9%) and English language and literature (by 6%). Student numbers for French have dropped since last year (by 5%), though there has been a modest increase in German (+4%), which bucks a trend of gradual decreases over recent years. Meanwhile, numbers studying A levels in ‘Other Modern Languages’, a category that refers to those other than the most commonly studied European languages, such as Arabic, Urdu and Mandarin, are up by 5%, though this is still considerably lower than the total from five years ago.

Results published by the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) show similar trends for those taking Advanced Highers in social science subjects, with business management and economics both rising in popularity. While there is no clear trend across the humanities in Scotland, the number of entries for English has decreased by 2%, and there are some notable decreases for both German (-23%) and French (-13%).

The British Academy will continue to monitor the health and development of the humanities and social sciences at system-wide and discipline-specific levels via its SHAPE Observatory function. Later this year, the Academy will publish a comprehensive analysis of the health of English studies.

Professor Julia Black, President of the British Academy, said:

"These data are invaluable, allowing us to monitor the health of the SHAPE subjects (the Social Sciences, Humanities and the Arts for People and the Economy) and explore what drives trends in take-up. It is brilliant to see so many social science subjects continue to thrive, and we are encouraged that some humanities subjects have enjoyed modest growth year on year, after a period of decline.

“However, the picture for other subjects is less rosy. Subjects such as English literature and modern languages inform our understanding of culture, human nature and critical thought, and underpin our wider efforts at global engagement. We know that SHAPE graduates embark into sectors which underpin the UK economy and are among the fastest growing, such as financial services, communications and our booming creative industries. Meanwhile, 59% of current FTSE100 bosses studied a SHAPE subject at undergraduate or postgraduate level, which shows just how far one can go with an education in SHAPE.

“As we head into the autumn, pupils will be deciding which subjects to pursue at GCSE, A level and in further and higher education and I would urge all of them to consider the benefits of a broad and balanced subject portfolio across the humanities, the sciences and the social sciences.”

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