Education & Family

GCSE results: Traditional subjects less popular

Satellite photo of Nile Delta
Image caption GCSE geography entries have seen a dramatic fall

Fewer teenagers are choosing to do traditional subjects such as languages, geography and history, the latest GCSE results show.

But more are opting to do the sciences in-depth as individual subjects.

Hundreds of thousands of students in England, Wales and Northern Ireland received their results on Thursday.

The Westminster government believes the new English Baccalaureate benchmark will mean more teenagers get to study subjects it believes are vital.

It says that in the past, too many children - especially the poorest - have been steered away from traditional academic subjects towards vocational subjects which might not have been in their best interests but which boosted schools' league table positions.

The new measure shows the proportion of pupils in a school who get a "good GCSE pass" (A* to C) in five subjects which the government says should be at the heart of a good education.

These are English, maths, a language, at least two sciences and either history or geography.

Language slump

The publication of the GCSE results gives the clearest picture of which subjects are most popular - although the results do not include vocational qualifications taken by increasing numbers of students.

The biggest long-term falls have been in languages, triggered initially by the decision of the last Labour government to end compulsory language study for children after the age of 14.

That change came in in 2004.

Since 2006, there has been a 22% fall in the numbers of teenagers taking a modern foreign language at GCSE.

French has been hardest hit - with the number of exam entries falling by nearly 29% in that time - followed by German, where there was a fall of nearly 25%.

Today's results show a dramatic 13% fall in French and German entries compared with last year.

There was also a 2% fall in Spanish - which had been growing in popularity until now.

Andrew Hall, chief executive of the AQA exam board said modern foreign languages were in "long-term decline" at GCSE level.

'Hard subjects'

Kathryn Board, from Cilt, the National Centre for Languages, said: "The figures show the extent of the gap to be closed with languages and must be of huge concern to anyone who wants to see British people engage confidently on the international stage".

According to Cilt, languages suffer from a perception that they are "hard subjects" and the fact that pupils often have many subjects to choose from.

Some might opt to do one subject over another because they think they are more likely to get an A grade in it.

It is thought one of reasons for the slump in languages is that more students are opting to do the individual sciences.

Schools Minister Nick Gibb said: "While it is encouraging to see the rising uptake in maths and single sciences, it is worrying that once again there are falling numbers studying languages."

Labour began a drive to get to more young people to study the individual sciences, because the depth of study they require is seen as vital if teenagers are to take the subjects at A-level or university.

Professor Dame Athene Donald, from the Royal Society, welcomed the "significant increase" in the numbers taking individual sciences.

"This continuing rise in numbers, coupled with the excellent pass rates achieved, is proof that the brightest students are recognising the wide range of opportunities that doing these subjects offer for further study at A-level and out in the job market," she said.

Message from business

As science entries have risen, so those for history and geography have fallen.

Geography fell most dramatically - with entries down 13,800 compared with last year. History entries were down about 2,700.

Brian Lightman, the general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said: "The decrease in modern languages at GCSE is disappointing but until employers give a clear message that they value languages as a business skill, it will be difficult to convince students otherwise".

Mr Lightman said there would be a move towards both modern languages and history in the coming years.

English Baccalaureate

The new English Baccalaureate measure will undoubtedly lead to such a change.

It has been welcomed by many commentators but criticised by teaching unions, who say schools might feel compelled to push children in to academic subjects when they might be more suited to a vocational route.

Other criticism has come from teachers of subjects which are not on the EBacc list - such as art, music and religious education - who say fewer children will now opt to do those subjects.

Mr Gibb said all children had the right to a broad and balanced education that included English, maths, science, a language and a humanity.

"These academic subjects reflect the knowledge and skills young people need to progress to further study or to rewarding employment," he said.

"Just 8% of children eligible for free school meals were entered for the EBacc subjects last year compared to 22% overall.

"The EBacc is not compulsory but it is about closing the attainment gap between rich and poor and about increasing opportunity."

However, the Civitas think tank is warning that the EBacc could disadvantage the poorest students because the pressure of league tables could lead to schools discouraging students from taking non-compulsory subjects if they were not expected to get a C or above in them.

Anastasia de Waal, from Civitas, said: "A student judged to be unlikely to get a C risks both failing to add to the league tables and being a potential distraction for teachers from the EBacc goal".

To overcome this, the think tank says the EBacc should be based on exam entries for the key subjects, not performance.

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