We need to return to proper A-Levels



The furore over the downgrading of predicted A Level grades has disguised a far more important issue. That is, what exactly are our students learning? The answer, according to the latest figures is increasingly Psychology, Sociology and Media Studies.

On Monday, I posted what I had thought, by Twitter standards, was a relatively innocuous tweet about this subject. It read ‘7,557 A level students took French. 19,517 took media studies. This is a crisis.’ I added that a further 62,544 had taken Psychology and another 36,789, Sociology. 

It has generated quite an extraordinary reaction. As I write, ‘Media Studies’ is trending on Twitter at number 2 for the entire United Kingdom. I certainly had not expected that. Despite all the predictable abuse, it has triggered a vital conversation.

Many reactions on social media focussed on the relative merits of French and Media Studies. It was heartening to read that many people had taken Media Studies and gone on to great success, but the point I was trying to make was not about those specific subjects; but the decline of a range of what you might call ‘traditional’ subjects, and the significant impact this is having on social mobility. 

Whether you like it or not, universities and employers do not value all subjects equally. At my comprehensive school, we had a special event in the school hall to help us choose our A Level subjects. Teachers sat at neatly laid out tables, each trying to persuade us to take their subject. Grand promises of exciting trips were used to entice us. Whatever this was, it was not good career advice. 

The attitude was: choose which subject you are most interested in, or even, choose which subject you will enjoy the most. Across the water at independent schools, this naivety is mercilessly exploited. Teaching Classics, for example, is an easy way for independent schools to guarantee places at elite universities. Aspiring applicants for more popular courses are given clear advice about the sort of subjects they should be studying. 

Now you may well criticise this as a mercenary attitude to education, and there is a degree of truth to that. But no child should have their life chances compromised because a school refuses to face up to the real world. The class system in this country can be so blatant, and this is yet another depressingly avoidable way in which it is perpetuated. 

Clearly, some teachers are also using particular subjects as a platform to promote their own political beliefs. I’ve lost count of the number of replies to my Tweet that are simply variations of: ‘studying Media Studies has given me the critical thinking skills to see through the lies of the evil right-wing press and the evil right-wing think tanks.’ How remarkable that all this independent, critical thinking is leading everyone to say exactly the same thing. 

Somehow, this bizarre ‘debate’ has revealed how much supposedly internationalist, remainery, socialist types don’t like French. ‘A dead language’, ‘irrelevant’, they say. When it came to choosing between defending an education system that is letting down our poorest children, or promoting the horizon-expanding, culturally enriching benefits of learning a language, they went for the former in their droves. 

Well, time is up. The grades fiasco should be the least of Gavin Williamson’s concerns. Whereas once students were rebellious, rule-breaking questioners of established orthodoxy, now they are the conformist enforcers of elitist notions like ‘everything is racist’ and ‘the climate is collapsing’. We need rigour in the state education system, we need genuine intellectual diversity, we need teachers who want to actually teach and not quiver in their homes out of fear of coronavirus. If Williamson won’t confront these issues, he has got to go.

Harry Wilkinson is Head of Policy at The Global Warming Policy Forum. Follow him on twitter: @HarryWilkinsonn