Are Narrowing A-Level Subject Choices Reducing Students’ Opportunities?


  1. A-level subject choices in the UK
  2. Why are A-level subject choices narrowing?
  3. How might this affect students’ career opportunities?
  4. Other factors that affect subject choices 
  5. How to make the best A-level subject choices

A new study from the Education Policy Institute (EPI), commissioned by the Royal Society has found that students in the UK who narrow their A-level subject choices may face reduced career opportunities later down the line. Let’s take a closer look at the findings and understand what this might mean for students making their A-level subject choices today. 💁student studying for a-levels at desk

A-level subject choices in the UK


When compared to other rich countries in the developed world, England’s curricular offer is already narrow. Furthermore, the A-level system forces students to specialise in a small set of subjects from the relatively young age of sixteen.

UK further education subjects are currently split into 5 main groups: sciences, maths, languages, humanities and vocational. Historically, students have been advised to choose subjects across these main groups to suit their interests and aspirations. 🧑‍🎓

A new study from the Education Policy Institute (EPI), commissioned by the Royal Society has found that students are increasingly unlikely to take a mix of subjects. The proportion of students with qualifications spanning three or more of the five main subject groups has halved since 2010.

How does the International Baccalaureate compare?

The International Baccalaureate – taught in 156 countries around the world – takes a different approach. In the IB Diploma Programme for 16 to 19-year-olds, six “core” academic subjects are complemented by a compulsory experience-based element known as Creativity, Activity, Service (CAS). 🎭

Subjects like Music, Art or Theatre count towards fulfilling creativity, while sports and exercise meet Activity requirements and students engage in volunteering at school or for charities for Service. This holistic approach to learning aims to prepare students for life beyond education, whatever that may be.


Why are A-level subject choices narrowing?


Although there are several contributing factors that have influenced the recent narrowing in students’ A-level subject choices, the EPI study pointed to governmental reforms and funding cuts as being largely responsible. ✂️

The 2013 “decoupling” reforms – which meant that AS-levels no longer counted towards final A-level grades – led to an increasing number of students choosing not to take them. This overall fall in the number of qualifications taken led to reduced subject diversity, as well as less teaching time. 

Since 2010, sixth forms and colleges have also seen significant funding reductions. The latest figures covering much of this period show that funding per student fell by 16 percent between 2012 and 2019. This has also led to fewer qualifications being made available which in turn contributed to narrower student choices. 🚫


How might this affect students’ career opportunities?


The EPI study found that greater subject diversity leads to higher earnings for students during their mid-twenties with graduates who had taken A-levels from two or more subject groups earning around 3-4 percent more in their early careers than those taking qualifications from only one subject group. 💰

Findings also suggested that the narrowing of A-levels could leave students poorly equipped for the workplace. A broader set of skills is likely to help graduates to transition into a broader set of jobs, by opening up opportunities in different sectors. 


Other factors that affect subject choices


Deciding on which subject to study at A-level can be overwhelming. The decisions made at this young age can have long-lasting implications for the rest of your child’s life. That’s why it is important to understand how different factors might influence you and your child at this crucial time. 

  • Parents 👪

There is often a correlation between parents’ occupation and students’ choice of

A-level subjects. Parents’ interests can be channelled to children, leading them to choose subjects that correspond closely to their parents’ positions in the economic and cultural hierarchy. 

  • School offer and timetabling 🗓️

Some schools may not offer courses that compliment your child’s future aspirations. This can either lead to them compromising in order to stay at their current school, attending two schools simultaneously, opting for blended learning or changing schools entirely which can mean increased travel costs or splitting friendship groups.

  • Perceived importance 🤔

Generally, academic subjects such as Maths, Chemistry, English, ICT or Art and Design are perceived to be of high importance where Critical Thinking or General Studies (often compulsory in schools) are perceived to be of low importance. These perceptions are also influenced by teachers, parents and the media.

  • University 🎓

If a subject is a requirement or strongly preferred for a degree then students will of course look to choose those subjects at A-level. Russell Group Universities can be particularly competitive and therefore prescriptive about what subjects they require prospective students to have studied at A-level in order to be considered.

  • Jobs market 👔

Given these unpredictable times, the UK jobs market is more changeable than ever. Students that have a varied background and flexible approach to employment are more likely to better withstand changes to the labour market in the future, such as those resulting from technological change for example.


How to make the best A-level subject choices


Finding the balance between supporting your child to make their own decisions and influencing them too heavily can be difficult to find. The best way to help your child when it comes to making decisions about A-level subject choices is to start talking about it early and to get advice from varied sources including careers advisors, university admissions offices and professionals in the fields of work that your child is interested in. 👩‍⚕️

At GoStudent, we work with experienced tutors from all over the world. Why not book your free trial lesson today and introduce a new perspective to your family’s educational outlook? Together we can map out the best next steps for your child, no matter where they are on their academic journey. 

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