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A-level pupils should be required to study humanities subject and maths – report

Pic by Gareth Fuller/PA

By Eleanor Busby, PA Education Correspondent

A-levels should be reformed so pupils study a humanities subject, mathematics and a foreign language until the end of schooling to tackle a decline in humanities enrolments at universities, a report suggests.

Requiring maths to be studied would improve the numerical abilities of humanities graduates and boost their employment prospects, according to a paper published by the Higher Education Policy Institute.

The report proposes that professionally valuable skills – including digital and numerical skills – should also be more fully embedded in humanities degrees.

Dr Gabriel Roberts, an English teacher at a London secondary school, argues that the number of applicants for humanities degrees may rise if studying a humanities subject at A-level was compulsory.

He adds: “Requiring pupils to continue a foreign language until the end of school might stem the decline in applicants for Modern Languages courses at university and lessen the social exclusivity of Classics and Modern Languages courses at leading universities.

“It would also address the long-term shortage of linguistic skills identified by employers, have wider benefits for pupils’ educational attainment and help compensate for the loss of international links likely to result from Brexit.”

On his proposal to require A-level students to study maths alongside a humanities subject until the end of compulsory schooling, report author Dr Roberts said it “would improve the numerical abilities of humanities graduates which might have positive effects on their careers.”

The report highlights that the modern humanities at UK universities face real challenges relating to enrolment, graduate employment and funding.

Between 1961/62 and 2019/20, the proportion of UK students studying humanities subjects fell from around 28% to approximately 8% of all students, according to the paper.

It adds: “The employment prospects of humanities graduates are weaker than those of graduates in some other areas, but the picture is mixed.”

Dr Roberts said: “There’s a strong case for broadening post-16 education in the UK. A-levels are strikingly narrow by international standards, and the success of the International Baccalaureate and the Extended Project Qualification shows pupils can handle greater breadth than A-levels offer.

“The growing popularity of interdisciplinary degrees should also tell us something about the kind of education that many young people want. There is a strong case for change.”

Nick Hillman, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute (Hepi), said: “It is often said there is a ‘crisis in the humanities’ and there are certainly some big challenges for the humanities in relation to student numbers, funding and curricula. We must discuss, debate and deal with them.

“Nonetheless, the ‘crisis’ narrative is too simplistic and too pessimistic. The true picture is more nuanced, more interesting and more positive, whether we look at teaching, course design or research.

“Moreover, the lively current debates on issues like statues and decolonising the curriculum prove that most people know we can only fully understand our society when the humanities thrive.”

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