Which degrees will students want to take in the future?

In May, without much fanfare, the Department for Education (DfE) and the Office of Qualifications and Examinations Regulation (Ofqual) released provisional statistics on the number of entries to A level, AS level and GCSE subjects being taken in summer 2019.

There’s much to be said for data releases such as this. These figures are indicative rather than formative, but they can provide an insight into future interest for degree subjects in the coming years.

So, what can we learn from the latest data release? The tables and commentary below pertain to entries to A level, AS level and GCSE subjects over the last three years, 2017 – 2019. Tables include columns showing the change over the period as a figure and as a percentage.

In the interests of article readability, the tables below only demonstrate the top ten subject groups for growth and decline in GCSE, AS level and A level entries. For anyone wanting to delve further into the detail, it’s available here.

Oh, the (arts and) humanities

Overall, the number of A level entries has seen a slight decline in recent years, a drop of around 5% from 785,450 in 2017 to 745,585 in 2019. This could broadly be expected given the ongoing (and much documented on Wonkhe) demographic decline, which means that there are fewer students to enter A levels.

Subject201720182019Change% Change
Computing7,7109,68510,5502,84037%
Chemistry48,76550,83055,6156,85014%
Political Studies16,23516,60518,4952,26014%
Biology56,94558,92564,4607,51513%
Psychology57,46058,30062,6855,2259%
Sociology33,33033,42036,2952,9659%
Physics33,84035,25536,4202,5808%
History45,72544,90047,9202,1955%
Law10,85510,64011,2453904%
Economics29,43030,19030,0956652%

Subject-wise, growth among A level entries was characterised by the sciences (hard and social). Computing has had the largest growth in recent years, benefitting from the demise of the ICT A level after at least partly causing it: the growth in students undertaking Computing GCSE and A levels was cited as a key reason why the ICT GCSE and A level were discontinued during the AS and A level reform.

Subject201720182019Change% Change
Performing / Expressive Arts2,3201,3101,085-1,235-53%
English21,21017,87513,815-7,395-35%
Other Sciences2,4852,0401,755-730-29%
English Language & Literature10,4509,0007,580-2,870-27%
Religious Studies22,48517,26516,455-6,030-27%
Media / Film / TV Studies24,79023,17519,985-4,805-19%
Classical subjects6,1955,4704,995-1,200-19%
German3,4402,8902,905-535-16%
Drama10,77010,2609,320-1,450-13%
Design & Technology10,7509,7809,375-1,375-13%

Identifying the subjects that have seen the largest decline in A level entries proves a little trickier due to several subjects ‘winding down’ in recent years, thus demonstrating decline of 99% or 100%. These have been removed, alongside the all-encompassing ‘all other subjects’, which – while necessary – offers little insight.

After the above subjects have been removed, the largest declines belong to arts and humanities subjects. What should be of concern here is that, unlike the Computing/ICT example above, students are not eschewing these subjects in favour of other similar subjects; they are simply being shunned altogether.

Take for example Performing / Expressive Arts, which has seen a decline that isn’t being redressed in other subjects, and worryingly, this A level decline comes against a backdrop of similar decline among Performing Arts BTEC entries. Also of note is the number of English entries: taken together, the three English subjects (English, English Literature and English Language & Literature) have seen a decline of 20% in three years. That’s one-fifth less students studying an English subject at A level.

Breaking up (and decoupling) is hard to do

When viewed as a percentage change, the plight of AS levels since they were decoupled from the A level almost reads like a talent show sob story. The number of entries to AS levels declined from 659,880 in 2017 to 117,595 in 2019, a decline of 82%. Looking further back to 2015 (the year before the AS and A level reforms began) entries were 1,331,955, demonstrating a decline of 91% when compared to 2019.

Reporting on the growth or decline in individual subjects seems moot given that there are no subjects that have witnessed growth, and decline has been witnessed across the subjects at a rate similar to AS levels overall.

(E)Bacc for good?

Over the last three years, overall entries to GCSEs have grown slightly, up by about 2% from 5,098,030 in 2017 to 5,185,840 in 2019. This has been driven by growth in EBacc subjects, which have grown 9% since 2017, while non-EBacc subjects have declined by 21% over the same period.

Subject201720182019Change% Change
Biology133,030167,075167,52534,49526%
Chemistry132,520160,110160,98028,46021%
Physics132,595158,295159,55526,96020%
Spanish85,50591,980101,08015,57518%
Computing69,35072,36078,0808,73013%
Art & Design subjects165,115168,765184,06018,94511%
History240,570248,040264,68024,11010%
Geography231,425244,925253,12521,7009%
Classical subjects14,54015,40015,7401,2008%
Economics5,7005,2206,1454458%

As would perhaps be expected, subjects that have witnessed growth in recent years are those included in the EBacc. The sciences – Biology, Chemistry and Physics – have been the prime benefactors, followed by Spanish and Computing. After that come Art & Design subjects, the non-EBacc subject with the highest growth in recent years.

Subject201720182019Change% Change
Engineering6,9854,7152,990-3,995-57%
Design & Technology156,285117,60590,805-65,480-42%
Other Sciences4,1902,5252,600-1,590-38%
Performing / Expressive Arts14,9508,7959,335-5,615-38%
Physical Education112,55087,82580,665-31,885-28%
Media / Film / TV Studies45,48541,92536,870-8,615-19%
Religious Studies297,800260,300251,140-46,660-16%
Music38,74535,89534,990-3,755-10%
Drama61,95558,59558,255-3,700-6%
Other Modern Languages32,99532,46032,100-895-3%

As with A levels above, any GCSE subjects that are “winding down” have been removed from the above table that shows the highest declines. When these have been removed, Engineering and Design & Technology have demonstrated the largest declines. The statistical release from Ofqual notes that this is the first year that new specifications are being awarded in these two subjects, and as these new specifications are different to the previous, “we might expect some changes in entries”.

Beyond this, there are a lot of parallels between the declining GCSE subjects and declining A level subjects: in both lists, we see Performing / Expressive Arts, Media / Film / TV Studies, and Drama. I’ll stop short of drawing any kind of correlation here, but it certainly offers some concerning food for thought.

State of the qualification(s)

The statistics featured in this article are only the tip of the iceberg as far as qualification statistical releases are concerned: statistics for Level 1 and 2 entries are also included in this same statistical release; there are also quarterly releases concerning BTEC and vocational qualifications and the Joint Council for Qualifications (JCQ) publishes attainment figures in the summer.

There is much to be learnt from this data. These figures aren’t the whole story, but they’re part of the puzzle; rather than provoke action (or outrage), they intend to stimulate planning and discussion.

Statistics in this article are reproduced from Ofqual under the terms of the Open Government Licence v3.0. Any conclusions or inferences made from the statistics in this article are purely those of the author.

2 responses to “Which degrees will students want to take in the future?

  1. Hi Nick, thanks for your comment. Maths has remained pretty stable over the last few years, with a slight growth of 2% at GCSE and decline of 2% at A level. I’ve linked the actual statistical release in the fourth paragraph above if you wanted to delve a little deeper. This article was intended as just a flavour of what’s growing and declining.

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