New British Academy President welcomes increased take-up of SHAPE subjects but cautions more work needed to reverse five-year decline

12 Aug 2021

Responding to this year’s A-levels data, the new President of the British Academy, Julia Black, has welcomed the rising take-up of many SHAPE subjects (the Social Sciences, Humanities and the Arts for People and the Economy) but cautioned more work needs to be done to reverse the overall downwards trend seen in other subjects.

The Joint Council for Qualifications (JCQ) A levels data for 2021 revealed growth in many social sciences, such as Business Studies (+6.52%), Economics (+6.87%), Law (+15.44%), Political Studies (+4.61%), Psychology (+9.15%) and Sociology (+7.94%). In the humanities, Geography entries have risen by 16.77% on last year, after several years of decline, while the numbers of students opting to study Religious Studies (4.81%) and History (2.15%) have also seen a modest increase.

Even language learning, which has suffered a worrying decline in recent years, has shown early signs of recovery, with overall take-up increasing by 2.99% on last year. This includes a 6.66% rise in entries for "other modern languages", such as Urdu, Mandarin and Arabic, which play a vital strategic role for the United Kingdom – for trade, diplomacy, soft power, security and defence. A-level entries for Spanish and French have also enjoyed modest growth, at 4.96% and 1.45% respectively, though there was a 4.95% fall in the number of students opting to study German this year.

However, there has been a marked decline in some SHAPE subjects since 2017, which has in turn reduced the numbers of students taking these subjects at university and those entering the workplace with the skills that are most in-demand by employers: communication, collaboration, research and analysis, independence, creativity and adaptability.

The GCSEs data for 2021 present a more mixed picture with Geography (+4.23%), Spanish (+4.75%), and other modern languages (+7.1%) all on the rise but with other subjects falling in popularity. The most notable drops have been in German (-9.63%), Design and Technology (-7.4%), Media, Film and TV studies (-5.51%).

Responding to this year’s data, Professor Julia Black, who took over as President of the British Academy last month, said:

"The rise in entries for a number of social sciences subjects, and particularly some languages, is encouraging. However, these yearly gains follow several years of declining take-up in many SHAPE subjects – for instance, modern languages experienced a 54% drop in undergraduates between 2008-9 and 2017-18, leading to at least 10 modern languages departments closing in the last decade and a further nine significantly downsizing.

"Our services economy relies heavily on the skills of SHAPE graduates, alongside those from STEM, so it is vital we shore up the progression of talent to universities and the jobs market. This starts with keeping a close eye on student numbers at system-wide and discipline-specific levels, which the British Academy is doing through its SHAPE Observatory project. It also means advocating for policy interventions, as we have done with our proposal for a national strategy to revive language learning, and encouraging the SHAPE community to make the case for the value of the subjects.

"As we head into the autumn, students up and down the country are deciding which subjects to pursue at GCSE, A level and university and I would urge all of them to consider the benefits of a broad and balanced subject portfolio across SHAPE and STEM. Our own evidence suggests that the workers of the future will build several different careers across multiple sectors and that those who can draw on a range of skills will be the most likely to succeed. The young people in our lives are about to make some pivotal decisions and we owe it to them – as parents, teachers, carers – to let them know about the many benefits and bright career prospects that come with studying a SHAPE subject."

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