Fewer are taking the subject at A-level and university. Are they being put off by the way government says it must be taught?
The lack of science, maths and language teachers has been talked about for years. But a shortage of English teachers has gone under the radar. Although last year’s target for new trainees was met, in the two previous years it was missed. English used to be among the most popular subjects, both to teach and to learn. Lessons had a reputation for being creative, thought-provoking – and even fun. Philip Pullman, David Almond and Joanne Harris were all teachers before they became authors. But dramatic reductions in the number of A-level entries and applications to study English at university suggest that some of the enthusiasm long associated with English has drained away.
The figures are most startling at A-level, where the number of students in England taking English language or literature has fallen 25% since 2013 (a pattern mirrored in Wales and Northern Ireland but not Scotland). While a demographic dip (fewer 18 year olds) partly explains this, the fall in English entries is far bigger than the overall 6.5% drop in entries – English has lost more students than other subjects. Undergraduate enrolments on English degrees have also fallen: from an all-time high of around 51,000 in 2011/12 to 39,000 last year, although the proportion of English A-level students who go on to study it at university has hovered around 14% for a decade.
It makes sense to view the decline of English studies as part of a bigger, international story about the weakening of the humanities, and its counterpoint: the rise in Stem (science, technology, engineering and maths). Enrolments in humanities courses in UK universities overall have fallen sharply. The number of students beginning foreign language courses fell by 10% last year; art and design by 5%. Similarly in the US, a longterm decline in the popularity of humanities courses accelerated sharply after the financial crisis of 2008/09; having accounted for 22% of all US degrees in the late 1960s, they now make up less than 5%. Writing in the Atlantic last year, historian Benjamin Schmidt called this a “crisis”, arguing that the cause is students’ anxieties about the job market and an increasingly instrumental view of higher education as a means to boost future earnings (even if graduate employment statistics provide limited justification for the switch from arts to sciences).
As someone who took only humanities subjects from age 16 and sometimes regrets this, I am sympathetic to the idea that students, especially girls, should be encouraged to stick with what does not necessarily come as naturally as studying one’s native language. I think a broader curriculum for 16 to 18 year olds would be beneficial, as would a stronger commitment to foreign languages.
That said, I think the decline of English – which I take to encompass all literature (Irish, Nigerian, American as well as British) written in it – is a cause for concern, and not just because it threatens the supply of school teachers. I chose English because the way literary forms could be used to convey ideas and feelings interested me more than anything else. The things I read at school – Wilfred Owen’s shattering war poems, DH Lawrence’s imagistic stories, Shakespeare’s king of self-pity, Richard II – made deep impressions on me. So did my later encounters with modernism: James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, the facsimile edition of TS Eliot’s manuscript for The Waste Land, with all its crossings-out and scribbled amendments, in the university library.
It’s true that the route through such activities to the workplace is not obvious. But Alex Thomson of the University English association believes student debt and “propaganda about Stem being the route to a high-wage job” have obscured more complicated truths about the world of work. He fears that the uneven impact of such messages will result in a social narrowing, and the increased concentration of people from well-off backgrounds in humanities-linked careers in media and arts, which they already dominate.
But there is another factor that he and others believe has played a bigger part in putting students off English. And that’s what is happening to the subject in schools, where spelling, punctuation and grammar (referred to by the acronym SPaG) have, under the core knowledge curriculum championed by schools minister Nick Gibb, come to dominate. Education consultant Myra Barrs is among the critics of what she calls a “new formalism”, in which content and meaning are sacrificed to a recipe-type approach (take an adverb and some wow words, add a pinch of unusual punctuation …) You don’t have to be against the traditional staples of grammar or Shakespeare to see the pitfalls of this, or the constricting effect of the enormous importance placed on GCSE grades.
There is a pragmatic argument to be made, in English’s defence, about the creative industries’ contribution to the UK economy, and a case to be made for the subject as a forge for tools of critical inquiry. Despite belonging to a generation taught by literary theory to be suspicious of universalism, I also believe too in the humanistic role of literature in advancing a more expansive and democratic version of Englishness than the nativist one: a culture that is curious about different meanings, new forms and other voices as well as taking pride in its own traditions.
This approach recognises in poetry, prose and drama from all times and places a means for people to communicate with each other. Right now, as we teeter on the brink of an uncertain future, there is an unanswerable case for English as one of the UK’s most valuable resources. It should be open to all young people growing up here.