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Sending students down a narrow path at A Level could hamper the UK’s future success, the British Academy warns

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With the release today of this year’s A level results, the British Academy warns that falling student numbers in subjects such as English and modern languages could harm the chances of the UK achieving its strategic goals.

Today’s Joint Council for Qualifications (JCQ) data show a decline in the number of A level students in England taking languages, English (literature and language), and religious studies.

Over the last two decades there has been a steep drop in the number of pupils studying languages at secondary school – and this year A level numbers continue to fall, with a 5% decline in take up in 2019 compared to 2018 in England.

This has a knock-on effect on university-level study. Between 2007 and 2017 at least 10 modern language departments were closed at UK higher education institutions and nine more significantly downsized their undergraduate provision. Earlier this year, the Academy called on Government to implement a national strategy to reverse this decline in language learning.

Meanwhile, entries for A levels in English subjects (English, English literature, English language and literature) declined by 13% in 2019 compared with 2018 in England– in line with an overall fall of 30% since the recent peak of entries in 2015.

Entries for religious studies A levels also fell in England, by 5% in 2019 compared with 2018. The drop follows publication of a British Academy report showing student numbers for theology and religious studies at university have fallen by a third since 2012.

However, there has been a rise in the numbers of A-level history and geography students in England – up on 2018 by 6% and 5% respectively. 

Professor Sir David Cannadine, President of the British Academy, said:

‘If the UK is to achieve its strategic goals and tackle the major challenges we face – from climate change to the ageing society and the rise of artificial intelligence – the skills gained by studying humanities and social science subjects at A level, and then at university, will be essential.

‘As we march onwards, into the 21st century and beyond, we will need individuals with expertise in law, philosophy and politics to work hand in hand with Britain’s outstanding science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) graduates. Developments such as automated technologies, health discoveries and other inventions cannot be looked at through the scientific lens alone – they need the input of those who have studied ethics, human behaviour, culture, the law and more.

‘Put simply, the UK’s future success depends on students from a range of disciplines and we will continue to work with our partners in the sciences to make the case for a broad and balanced curriculum, and for knowledge and insights from across the disciplinary spectrum.’

*Figures in this statement relate to results data for England only. A more detailed analysis based on provisional entry data released in May 2019 is also available.