Subject choice: survival of the fittest

Who decides which subjects are offered as school leaving qualifications? 

Books of various subjectsLast summer, as I sat in an A-level Anthropology award meeting, I pondered what kind of students were taking this unusual qualification. Were they all budding anthropologists, or had they other career aspirations in mind? What might future employers make of someone with an A-level in Anthropology? Would they be impressed, or perhaps slightly bemused? This got me thinking in turn about the range of A-level qualifications that are offered in this country.

Alongside the standard English, Maths and Science A-levels stand the more exotic Latin, Persian, and Communication & Culture qualifications. Variety is not limited to A-levels alone: exam boards offer GCSEs in Biblical Hebrew, Film Studies, and Dance, to name but a few.

Some people say that there are too many choices at GCSE and A-level today, but a brief look back to 1988 suggests that this broad subject choice is not just an artefact of our time. In 1988, GCSEs in Typewriting, Meteorology, Building Studies (plastering), Motor Vehicle Studies and, my personal favourite, General Maritime Knowledge were all on offer. Wide subject choice is nothing new, though there are some notable differences between the qualifications available in 1988 and those we see today.

So who is it that decides which subjects are appropriate for school leaving qualifications?

Awarding bodies design qualifications which comprise a specification, outlining the knowledge and skills which will be assessed, and a set of sample assessment materials. The qualifications are then submitted to Ofqual for approval. There are five exam boards that offer GCSE and A-level qualifications in the UK: AQA, Edexcel, OCR, CCEA and WJEC. More than one exam board can offer the same subject, so there could be an Edexcel French GCSE and an OCR French GCSE. Furthermore, the same exam board can offer two qualifications when they want to offer two distinctive approaches to a subject. For example, AQA could offer GCSE French A and GCSE French B. So even within a subject there is ample choice for teachers and students. It is Ofqual’s role as regulator to accredit qualifications which they deem fit for purpose at the appropriate level, and to ensure that all specifications within a subject area are comparable so that no route is easier or more difficult than another. Once approved, the specifications will be offered to schools, colleges and, where appropriate, private candidates.

Schools decide which qualifications they will offer to their pupils. A range of factors will influence this decision: the interests of the students and teachers within the school, the entry requirements for higher education, employer needs, and the government-determined currency of qualifications in terms of performance tables. In order to support an inclusive education system, awarding bodies aim to provide as much variety as they can. For this reason, some qualifications are run at a loss. Subjects such as GCSE Music and some of the minority modern foreign languages are particularly expensive to deliver. However, if there is no demand for a qualification, it makes no sense for an awarding body to offer it. One can imagine that the computer asteroid hailed the demise of GCSE Typewriting. Society has changed; five year olds now seem to touch-type faster than they can talk. There is no longer a niche for GCSE Typewriting and so it has become extinct or, maybe more accurately, has evolved into a new species called ICT.

I see the decision about which subjects are appropriate for school leaving qualifications as an environmental one, perhaps not unlike natural selection. For a subject to evolve and thrive, it will need a supportive ecosystem: teachers and students must find it interesting; awarding bodies must respond by working with teachers, subject associations and university staff to develop a qualification for the subject; the regulator must be convinced that the qualification meets its requirements; higher education establishments and employers must find value in the qualification; and the government must endorse the qualification as a measure of accountability by including it in the league tables. 

Qualifications will only survive so long as all parties provide an environment which can sustain them. Returning to my thoughts at the A-level Anthropology award meeting, I realise that the subject’s recent accreditation reflects the continual evolution of social science provision in schools and colleges. Where will our political, social and cultural environment take us next?

Victoria Spalding

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