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Primary Education News
News Pupils returning to traditional subjects, says exam board chief
AQA chief executive says recent entries for A-levels and GCSEs are evidence of a shift driven in part by career concerns
The resurgence of pupils taking traditional subjects such as geography and science is being driven by young people becoming "much clearer" about what they want to do with their lives, according to the head of the UK's largest examinations board.
Andrew Hall, chief executive of the AQA board, said the recent entries for A-levels and GCSEs were evidence of a shift in subjects driven in part by career concerns among pupils as young as 13.
"Young people are being savvy. Even at GCSEs now, pupils are saying, which subjects will help me progress?" he said.
The 2013 class of A-level candidates chose maths, biology, chemistry, physics and geography in greater numbers than before, at the expense of the likes of media studies. At GCSE level, modern languages such as French and Spanish showed strong growth, reversing previous years of decline.
Hall said there was "a return to traditionalism coming through the subject choices" at both exam levels, as employers and universities made plain what they wanted to see from applicants.
"Young people have it a whole lot tougher than certainly in my day," said Hall. "You don't get the second, third or fourth chance that you had 30 years ago.
"The economy is really difficult, employment is challenging. And Stephen from Birmingham is not competing with Stephen from Bognor Regis, he's competing with Stefano from Bologna. And that I think is a real pattern," said Hall, who was previously CEO of international engineering firms. "For 15 years I was running public companies so I was recruiting thousands of people around the world. Having linguists was important, people who could talk across boundaries, having people who had mathematics and English skills was important. And I think science is generally becoming regarded as more important than anything we do now.
"Those are skills that employers say they want. Talking across A-levels and GCSEs, universities are very clear about the sorts of qualifications they regard as helpful.
"And young people, they're bright. You go and talk to some 13- and 14-year-olds about what they want to do with their lives and things they want to do, they are much clearer now about the things that influence them."
But while there is evidence from this year's entries that more girls are taking sciences, there is still a gulf between the numbers of boys and girls taking the hard science papers. While the difference at GCSE level is not very large, at A-level the gap widens to a chasm: in 2013 more than 28,000 boys took A-level physics, while just 7,300 girls did the same.
Hall thinks that improved quality of science teaching will help close the gap – but says girls will take science over time.
"It's about understanding aspiration. It's self-perpetuating: the more girls go into engineering and succeed, or use their physics qualifications and succeed, word will get round."