Worrying decline in study of History and English at A Level, warns British Academy

17 Aug 2017

Worrying decline in study of History and English at A Level, warns British Academy

The new President of The British Academy, Professor Sir David Cannadine, has expressed concern at a fall in numbers taking A- levels in Humanities subjects such as English and History.

Entries for English and History were down 5.6% and 6.8% respectively. While recent university applications are stable, the British Academy is concerned that this decline may affect future undergraduate numbers. There are fears that take-up of these subjects may drop further following the ‘decoupling’ of AS Levels, which traditionally were used by students to broaden their subject mix before specialising in their final year of school.

David Cannadine, who took up the role of President of the British Academy in July, is the author of a wide range of books on the history of modern Britain, including a recent biography of Margaret Thatcher.

He said:

“Studying subjects such as History puts the whole of human experience in context and help us to understand cultures, societies and why humans behave as they do. There is not a challenge facing the world today which can be solved by looking through a scientific lens alone.

“What’s more, the sorts of skills that students gain from studying subjects such as English and History are vital to our future prosperity, especially in a world of ever-more complicated international engagement and with Brexit looming. Skills such as the ability to appraise evidence critically, to persuade, negotiate, and unravel complexity will be crucial. International examples show that a broad curriculum allows school-leavers to develop a wide range of skills and interests. We shouldn’t force students down a narrow path at a time when they should be expanding their perspectives.”

The British Academy exists to champion the humanities and social sciences – subjects from economics to English, psychology to languages, literature to law. The Academy funds outstanding research, provides expertise and analysis to decision-makers, and acts as a forum for public debate.

It will launch a report this Autumn on the skills of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences graduates and their contribution to society and the economy.


Notes to editors

  1. For further information, interviews or images, contact the Press Office: [email protected] / 0207 969 5273/ 07500 010432.

  1. The British Academy is the UK's national body for the humanities and social sciences – the study of peoples, cultures and societies, past, present and future. We have three principal roles: as an independent Fellowship of world-leading scholars and researchers; a Funding Body that supports new research, nationally and internationally; and a Forum for debate and engagement – a voice that champions the humanities and social sciences. For more information, please visit
    Follow the British Academy on Twitter @britac_news.


  1. Professor Sir David Cannadine FBA, FRSL, FSA, FRHistS is an historian of modern British history from 1800 to 2000. He succeeded Lord Stern as President of the British Academy in July 2017. He is Dodge Professor of History at Princeton University, a Visiting Professor of History at Oxford University, and the editor of the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. He has previously taught at the University of Cambridge and Columbia University, New York. He was Director and Professor of History at the Institute of Historical Research from 1998-2003. His publications include Margaret Thatcher: A Life And Legacy (2017), The Undivided Past: Humanity Beyond our Differences (2012), Mellon: An American Life (2006), Ornamentalism: How the British Saw Their Empire (2001), The Decline and Fall of the British Aristocracy (1999) and Class in Britain (1998). He has contributed to many national bodies in heritage and the arts, including the National Portrait Gallery, English Heritage, Westminster Abbey, the Victorian Society, Royal Academy Trust and the Library of Birmingham Trust. 

Contact the press office

For further information contact the Press Office on [email protected]  / 07500 010 432.

Sign up to our email newsletters