RESEARCH REPORT 5
The health of subjects: evidence from examinations entries
Research Officer, University of Oxford
The health of subjects: evidence from examinations entries
This paper presents one aspect of the work of the Nuffield Review of 14-19 education and
training. While there are disagreements over to what extent the school curriculum should be
organised around subject disciplines (or around learners), most educational institutions serving
14-19 year olds, and the work of government agencies such as Ofsted and QCA, are de facto
organised on the basis of subjects. It was therefore decided to review evidence on the ‘health’ of
Data on entries to different subjects at GCSE and A-Level since 1994 and 1993 respectively has
been used as a starting point for this analysis. As Walford (2000, p.303) notes, “The number of
students annually taking a subject at examination level is not a complete representation of the
subject’s health, but it does represent a visible and valuable recurring indicator in relation to both
the status and popularity of the subject in schools.” Examination statistics have been quoted
(sometimes selectively) by the media. They have been used by government bodies like the DfES
and QCA for monitoring purposes and also to inform funding and resource allocation decisions,
and by subject associations for monitoring purposes and to support arguments for additional
resources for their subject. It was decided to select a limited number of subjects – chemistry,
physics, mathematics, geography, and modern foreign languages – in order to investigate these
issues in some detail.
This focus on GCSE and A-Level examinations data does not cover all aspects of a ‘healthy’ 14-19
curriculum and learning experience. Vocational qualifications, extra-curricular activities, and
informal learning are also important. The availability of data is a key issue here. Publicly available
administrative data on vocational qualifications is not as detailed as that on GCSE and A-Level and
therefore cannot be analysed in the same way. Administrative data exists on subjects covered for
GNVQ/AVCE and also for frameworks within the apprenticeship programme, but frequent changes
in data collection methods and in the design of the programmes themselves make it difficult to
construct time series data. Other vocational qualifications including BTEC are only counted in the
main administrative datasets as part of the total number of entry Level/Level 1/Level 2/Level 3
qualifications obtained. These data are not disaggregated by type of qualification, or by subjects
chosen.1 Also, there is very little quantitative data on extra-curricular activities and informal
learning. Part of the remit of the Review is to assess the quality of the evidence available and to
identify significant gaps: the paucity of data for qualifications other than GCSE and A-Level and
for extra-curricular activities and informal learning is one of these gaps. Further research on
vocational qualifications and a review of qualitative evidence available on informal learning and
extra-curricular activities would be valuable but not possible within the time and resource limits of
“Subject” take-up in vocational qualifications could be traced through privately-owned datasets such as
PLASC and ILR. Time and resource limits preclude this sort of analysis for the time being.
2. The data
This paper will now present and comment on time-series data for GCSE and A-Level examination
entries. Examination entry data is an imperfect proxy for subject take-up, as some pupils may
have studied on a GCSE or A-Level course but not been entered for the examination. Nevertheless
these data give a useful indication of changing patterns of decision-making among 14-19 year
olds and changing patterns of curriculum provision and organisation among schools and colleges
Before the data are presented it is important to comment on the data in terms of quality, how
they have been collected and collated, and how they have been used.
First, there is no single source of data on examination entries and attainment. Examination Board
data (collated by Joint Council of Qualifications from 2001 and its predecessors before then) are
the most detailed, broken down by country and by gender, but give only provisional figures. A
number of subject associations have also collated data, for their own subject and sometimes for
others too, but these data cannot be used for cross-subject comparisons over time. This paper
analyses DfES entry and achievement data: for A-Levels data collated in UK Statistics of Education
(published annually) and for GCSE time series data for England presented in a Statistical First
Release (DfES 2005).2 This use of different datasets was a deliberate strategy. While this makes
direct comparison between GCSE and A-Level data impossible, it has the benefit of illustrating
some of the potential pitfalls of the data available and the difficulty of making comparisons over
Second, the existence of different datasets which collect and organise data in different ways
makes the construction of time series datasets problematic. This difficulty is compounded by
changes in methods of data collection over time, even within the same dataset. For example, the
A-Level entry statistics in DfES Statistics of Education are for all ages before 1997, and only 16-18
year-olds after this date. Nevertheless, the numbers taking the qualification outside the age
cohort are small and therefore should have a minimal impact on the data.
Third, changes in the post-14 curriculum and the structure of post-14 assessment mean the
nature of GCSEs and A-Levels has changed over time. Boundaries between subjects are dynamic:
for example, elements of science and technology have merged with other subjects (Bell 2001).
The content of syllabuses has also changed. For example, there has been a shift from physical
geography towards social geography in GCSE and A-Level geography syllabuses (Birnie 1999),
and a shift from ‘pure’ to applied areas in the topics covered at mathematics A-Level (Hoyles et al.
Time series data from 1994 to 2004 are in Table 26 of the SFR presented as an additional excel file.
2001, Kahn and Hoyles 1997). Such changes make it difficult to interpret time series data: we
may not be comparing like with like over time.
For these reasons it is important to treat these data with caution. They should be seen as a crude
measure. Also, the examination entry data analysed is disaggregated by gender, but cannot be
disaggregated by region, ethnicity, or type of school. More detailed data – for instance
disaggregated by region, by towns or boroughs within regions, type of school, or even by
individual schools – has been collated by subject associations or individual researchers for
particular subjects, but cannot be used for cross-subject comparisons.
3. Changing patterns of subject take-up
3.1 Time series data – GCSE
Fig 1. GCSE entries (England) 1994-2004
number of entries
Double Award Science
1994 1995 1996 1997 1998 1999 2000 2001 2002 2003 2004
Fig 2. GCSE entries (England) 1994-2004 as % total entries
% total GCSE entries
Double Award Science
1994 1995 1996 1997 1998 1999 2000 2001 2002 2003 2004
Fig 3. GCSE (England) entries 1994-2004 % of all 15-year olds attempting the subject
% of 15 year-olds
Double Award Science
1994 1995 1996 1997 1998 1999 2000 2001 2002 2003 2004
Table 1. 15 year-old pupils and total entries (England) 1994-2004
Year Total GCSE entries Number of 15 year old
1994 3,729,427 532,273
1995 4,092,696 578,197
1996 4,194,872 594,035
1997 4,155,907 586,766
1998 4,141,083 575,210
1999 4,229,612 580,972
2000 4,251,811 580,393
2001 4,422,251 603,318
2002 4,843,625 606,554
2003 4,872,690 622,122
2004 4,952,980 643,560
Time series data for GCSE and for A-Level have been calculated as 1) the raw number of entries;
2) the percentage of total entries; and 3) the percentage of the age cohort attempting the
subject. The raw number of entries is important - as this affects staffing decisions among other
matters – but the percentage of total entries is required to get a clearer sense of trends over time
the percentage of total entries is required. It is also important to investigate how changes in
entry figures relate to the size of the age cohort.3
Mathematics has been compulsory to age 16 through the whole period. It has also been
compulsory through the period for all pupils to take some science to age 16. It is left to schools
whether to offer single science subjects or science double award or single award GCSEs.
Geography has been optional at Key Stage 4 (KS4) throughout this period. Nevertheless,
geography, like other options subjects, has been affected by changes to the national curriculum in
1995 whereby the time allotted to core areas of English, mathematics and science was increased,
thereby limiting the time available for optional subjects. MFL became part of the compulsory
national curriculum for pupils up to age 16 in 1989. However, from 1998 MFL and design and
technology could be disapplied for some pupils, and in September 2004 MFL was downgraded
from statutory to entitlement status at KS4.
Key trends in the time series data for GCSE entries are as follows:
1. Low and relatively static numbers entered for physics and chemistry – consistently less than
10% of total GCSE entries and of the age cohort. The majority of pupils are taking Double
Award science with a small increase between (72% of 15 year-old pupils in 1994 and 75% in
2. There has been a rise in the number of entries for mathematics and double award science
(from 479,084 in 1994 to 606,002 in 2004 for mathematics and from 380,893 in 1994 to
479,591 in 2004 for double award science). The proportion of 15 year-old pupils taking these
subjects also rose over the period examined, from 72% in 1994 to 75% in 2004 for double
award science, and from 90% in 1994 to 94% in 2004 for mathematics. However, in 2004
both subjects constituted a slightly smaller proportion of the total number of GCSE
examination entries than in 1994. Entries for mathematics counted for 12.85% of all GCSE
entries in 1994 and 12.24% in 2004, while the corresponding figures for Double Award science
were 10.21% of all GCSE entries in 1994 and 9.68% in 2004.
3. Entries for geography have fallen (with the exception of 2001), from a high of 270,091 entries
(6.44% of all GCSE entries) in 1996 to 197,123 entries (3.98% of all GCSE entries) in 2004. This
These data are based on the cohort information in the DfES Statistical First Release. However, population
statistics have been amended since this SFR was published so some of the calculations presented may be
downward trend continued in 2005, with GCSE entries down by 4.9% from 2004 figures (QCA
4. Entries for French GCSE rose from 295,211 in 1994 to 321,207 in 2001, but have declined since
(289,756 in 2004). However, as a percentage of all GCSE entries there was a slow decline from
7.92% in 1994 to 7.26% in 2001, and a much faster decline from 2001 to 5.85% in 2004.
Entries for German GCSE rose (with some fluctuation) from 110,446 in 1994 to 130,627 in 2001,
but have declined since (there were 116,347 entries in 2004). As a percentage of all GCSE entries
German entries rose from 2.96% in 1994 to a high of 3.07% in 1999, but have declined since
(to 2.35% in 2004). Entries in Spanish, on the other hand, have risen steadily both in raw
numbers and as a percentage of total entries, but from a very low base (from 28,000 (0.75% of
all GCSE entries) in 1994 to 53,539 (1.08% of all GCSE entries) in 2004). The timing of the sharp
decline in the number of entries for French and German suggests that it may be associated
with the disapplication of MFL for some pupils since 1998. However, no definite causal
relationship can be claimed from this data alone.
3.2 Time series data – GCSE disaggregated by gender
GCSE time series data disaggregated by gender are displayed in Appendix 1. They reveal
important trends which are not evident in the aggregate data:
1. Chemistry has consistently been taken by more males than females, and this gap has not
narrowed significantly between 1994 and 2004. There is a similar pattern for physics, with the
gap between males and females being possibly slightly wider than for chemistry.
2. Entries for double award science do not reveal a significant gender gap but still more males
than females are entered for GCSE examination. This gap appears larger for the percentage of
total GCSE entries than for the number of entries.
3. The numbers of males and females entered for GCSE mathematics are close but there are
more male than female candidates. Mathematics is a compulsory subject for all pupils till 16,
and overall there are more female than male GCSE entries. This suggests that a higher
proportion of male pupils than female pupils are entered for examination. Further research
would be needed to establish the reasons for this difference. Moreover, there is a sharp dip in
mathematics entries as a percentage of total entries for both males and females in 2002 which
is not visible in figures 1-3 but evident in these graphs owing to the large scale.
4. More females than males are consistently entered for French, German and Spanish GCSE.
Whilst for French the gap between males and females has become slightly wider since 2000,
the gap has narrowed for German. This gap existed even when one MFL GCSE was
compulsory for all students. Perhaps it can be explained by more females than males taking a
second MFL GCSE as one of their optional subjects.
5. Geography has been optional throughout the period, and has been consistently taken by more
boys than girls. QCA (2005) suggest a figure consistently close to 45% girls.
3.3 Time series data – A-Level
Fig. 4. A-Level/SCE Higher entries (UK) 1993-2004
number of entries
1993 1994 1995 1996 1997 1998 1999 2000 2001 2002 2003 2004
Fig. 5. A-Level/SCE Higher entries (UK) 1993-2003 as % total entries
A-Level/Higher entries as % total entries
% total entries
1993 1994 1995 1996 1997 1998 1999 2000 2001 2002 2003 2004
Fig. 6 A-Level/SCE Higher entries (UK) as % age cohort
A-Level/Higher entries as % of age cohort
% age cohort
1993 1994 1995 1996 1997 1998 1999 2000 2001 2002 2003 2004
These data are for the UK as a whole and include entries for Scottish Highers as well as A-Levels.4
At A-Level (unlike at GCSE) no subjects are compulsory: all subjects have the same statutory
status within the curriculum. Therefore, examination entry data for A-Level reflects, more than
for GCSE, students’ decisions and preferences. Nevertheless, students are constrained in their
decisions by what subjects and courses institutions offer.
Key trends in the time series data for A-Level/Higher entries are as follows:
1. The main trend in chemistry, physics, geography, French and German between 1993 and 2004
has been one of decline (in the total number of entries, in the percentage of total entries, and
in the percentage of the age cohort entered for the subject). This decline has been most
marked in French.
2. Mathematics has consistently had the highest take-up of all these subjects. The number of
entries rose (with some fluctuation) between 1993 and 1996 but has declined thereafter. The
The dataset used here does not disaggregate between A-levels and SCE Highers. This dataset was deemed
relevant because young people in Scotland might apply to HEIs in England and Wales, and young people in
England and Wales might apply to HEIs in Scotland.
percentage of total entries has been relatively stable at between 9 and 10 percent till 2001,
with a decline to just over 8% since then. Entries as a percentage of the age cohort follow a
similar pattern to the number of entries but the fluctuations are greater.
3. Spanish is the exception to the general pattern of decline in Languages. Entries have risen (as
raw numbers, a percentage of total entries and as a percentage of the age cohort entered for
examination in the subject). Indeed, the graphs suggest that entries for German have
declined at the same time as entries for Spanish have risen: the two appear to be converging.
4. Data for physics, chemistry and geography reveal a general trend of declining entries with
some minor fluctuation. Entries for chemistry, however, rose between 2003 and 2004.
3.4 Time series data – A-Level/SCE disaggregated by gender
A-Level/SCE data disaggregated by gender is displayed in Appendix 2. With the exception of
chemistry, gender gaps are greater than they are for GCSE. Some researchers (e.g. Stables and
Stables 1997) suggest that once students have freer choice over which subjects to take, their
decisions are influenced by gender stereotypes to a greater extent than at GCSE when the
National Curriculum constrained choice. Such patterns could, however, also be influenced by what
subjects and courses educational institutions offer, option blocks, and timetabling constraints.
1. For chemistry, the number of entries for males was greater than that for females in the mid-
90s. However, towards the end of the decade numbers converged and from 2002 onwards
more females than males have been entered for advanced level chemistry. Entries for
chemistry A-Level/SCE remain higher as a percentage of all male entries than as a percentage
of all female entries, though the gap has narrowed.5
2. Entries for mathematics have fluctuated between 11% and 14% of total entries for boys, and
between 6% and 7% of total entries for girls. The gap between male and female entries has
reduced slightly, but has changed relatively little during the period examined.
3. The gap between male and female entries is largest for physics. As with mathematics the gap
has reduced slightly, but has remained relatively consistent over time.
The gap between male and female entries almost closed in 2001 (male Chemistry entries made up 5% of
all male A-Level entries and female entries 4.89% of all female entries) but has been wider since 2002.
4. The number of female entries for MFL has been substantially higher than the number of male
entries throughout the period. The gap is more substantial for all languages at A-Level/SCE
than it was for GCSE. For French the gap in entries narrowed slightly: in 1994 25,000 females
and about 10,000 males were entered for French A-Level/SCE, while in 2004 the
corresponding numbers were about 13,000 female and 6,000 male. This shows that most of
the numerical decline in entries was among females, but the proportionate decline for males
and females was similar. A similar pattern can be observed for German: a consistently greater
number of female entries than male entries, the steeper numerical decline being in female
entries, and a relatively consistent gap between female and male entries (which has perhaps
decreased very slightly). In Spanish there is a relatively consistent gap between male and
female entries. However, unlike French and German, this is within the context of an overall
rise in entries for both males and females.
5. Geography A-Level, like geography GCSE, has consistently been taken by more males than
females, within an overall trend of declining entry. The gap between male and female entries
has remained relatively constant, although it narrows slightly after 2001. Geography entries
in 2004 were 55% male, 45% female (QCA 2005).
3.5 Additional data
The analysis of time series data can be supplemented by data collated by subject associations and
researchers. Some of this these additional data pre- or post-date that in the time series, allowing
the trends observed in the time series data to be contextualised within a longer time span. In
addition, survey and case study data point to differences between localities, types of school,
individual schools which are masked by overall trends in the aggregate data.
Some of the additional data available regarding Geography pre-date those in the time series. In
an analysis of geography examinations entry data for the Royal Geographical Society, Grimble and
Mansell (2004) note that geography GCSE entries have declined since 1988, with the overall
number of candidates falling by 77,743, except for a brief revival between 1994 and 1997. This is
in the context of a consistent increase in total GCSE entries year on year. For A-Level they note a
more erratic pattern, with a steady increase of entrants from 1989 to 1994, and a general pattern
of decline (but with fluctuations) since then. Walford (2000) found that for most of the twentieth
century geography entries at public examinations aged 16 and 18 improved both in absolute
numbers and in numbers in relation to other subjects year by year, peaking in 1994-96.
There are also significant differences between schools. QCA (2005) note that entry figures for
individual schools range from 0% to 80% of the cohort, that entries within an individual school
can fluctuate over time, and that geography appeared to maintain or strengthen its position in
more “academic” schools or schools with strong geography departments, even in the context of an
overall downward trend in entries 2000-04. Weeden (2005) similarly found differences between
schools in their rates of entry for geography GCSE.
Much of the additional data on Modern Foreign Languages examination entries is provided by the
CILT, the National Centre for Languages. For instance, the CILT website gives access to data on
A-Level entries between 1975 and 2003. These data indicate a 36.4% decrease in entries for
French, an 11% decrease for German, but a 124% rise in entries for Spanish (though from a very
low base). Within this overall time-frame, entries for all three languages increased between 1985
and 1995. These data also report A-Level and Scottish Highers separately and so reveal
differences between England and Scotland which are masked in the time series data (for instance
Higher entries for German and French in Scotland have risen since 2001 – after the introduction of
a new Higher in 2000 – while A-Level entries fell).6 This suggests that entry data for A-Level
alone would reveal starker declines in French and German entries than are evident in the DfES
In addition, the CILT Language Trends survey reveals regional and local differences, and
differences between types of school, beneath the aggregate national data. For instance, the 2004
survey found that of the schools surveyed those in the north of England were more likely to make
MFL optional than those in the south. The same survey also found variation between types of
schools, with languages at KS4 being compulsory in 97% of the independent schools but only
30% of the state schools surveyed. It also found that the independent schools surveyed reported
a strong growth in Spanish while 44% of the maintained schools surveyed reported a decrease in
Spanish provision. (CILT 2004c). Finally there is evidence of significant differences between
individual schools in their interpretation of ‘entitlement’, with some schools guiding only top sets
to do languages, while others see languages as open to all (CILT 2004c, QCA 2004c).
Mathematics and science
See http://www.scilt.stir.ac.uk/Languages_in_Scotland/index.htm and
http://www.cilt.org.uk/research/statistics/education/index.htm#secondary [both accessed 4 October 2006].
Additional data on mathematics contextualises that in the time-series with a longer time-scale.
For example, London Mathematical Society reported that the number of A-Level mathematics
candidates fell from c.85,000 in 1989 to 53,000 in 2002, in the context of an increase in
participation in post-16 education and training over this period (LMS 2002). Institute of Physics
data demonstrates a rise in the proportion of female candidates for Mathematics A-Level from
33.6% in 1991 to 35.9% in 1998 (IoP 1999).
Institute Physics data (1999) also indicates that the low proportion of female candidates for A-
Level physics has been almost constant from 1988 to 1999 (at around 22% of physics
candidates), and also important differences between England and Scotland (where females made
up about 31% of physics Highers candidates in these years). Data for chemistry, on the other
hand, indicates a narrowing (and even a closing) of the gap in the number of A-Level entries for
males and females between 1985 and 2004.7
With mathematics and science being compulsory subjects in the national curriculum, it is
unsurprising that there is less additional evidence of differences between schools in entry rates
than there is for MFL and geography. Nevertheless, according to data on the Institute of Physics
website, single science subjects are more likely to be offered in independent than in state schools.
4. Interpreting the trends
This section analyses how subject experts and relevant research literature have interpreted the
trends in examination entries outlined above. Evidence examined includes reports by government
agencies (particularly QCA and Ofsted), literature from subject associations, major reports on
particular subjects (e.g. Smith 2004), and research literature on subject choice, subject
preference, and pupil motivation.
4.1 The evidence base
Much of this evidence does not set out directly to explain trends in public examination entries in
these subjects, but offers useful insights into a number of concerns and issues behind the trends
observed. QCA and Ofsted reports aim to assess the general condition of the subject in question,
with examination entry data being only one factor considered. Nevertheless, they offer useful
insights into government curriculum policy, the subject curriculum and assessment, and the
teaching workforce which might influence trends in examination entries. Subject associations
provide both useful data and evidence on the views and experiences of their practitioner
members. However, the role of subject associations as “preservers” of their own subject and as
lobbying bodies should be borne in mind.
The research evidence is patchy. First, much of the literature does not deal directly with
examination entry patterns or even with subject choice. Studies on pupil attitudes and motivation
in the classroom, or of subject preference (as distinguished from choice) are more common, but
motivation and preference may not correlate with actual decisions over examination entry.
Nevertheless, insights into motivation and preference can offer useful insights which could,
potentially, help us understand the static or declining entry levels observed in most of these
subjects. Second, researchers can interpret concepts such as motivation or preference in different
ways. As Lord (2003) observes, some researchers investigate enjoyment, others positive
attitudes, others liking or not liking, others preference. This makes it difficult to develop a
cumulative picture of research findings.
4.2 Interpreting the trends in examination entries
A range number of issues have been raised in the evidence examined which might help us
understand the trends in examinations entries in geography, chemistry, physics, mathematics and
4.2.1 Teaching and learning
For all the subjects included in this paper, downward or static trends in examination entries have
been attributed to poor teaching and a shortage of specialist teachers (see below). In some cases
this has been seen as a vicious circle, with a shortage of specialist teachers leading to poor
teaching and declining examination entries, which limits the supply of those qualified to become
specialist teachers in the future (e.g. Lipsett 2004).
Ofsted reports reveal that geography has performed poorly at KS3 compared with other subjects
in terms of teaching and student achievement, with most lessons being judged ‘satisfactory’
(Ofsted 2004a). Problems with teaching have been linked to problems with teacher recruitment,
leading to teaching by non-specialists particularly at KS3 and below and a lack of continuing
professional development opportunities for geography teachers (Lambert 2005; QCA 2004a; QCA
2005; Weeden 2005). QCA (2004a) also found a tendency to teach for coverage of examination
specification content rather than for the deep learning of ideas, leading to “safe” lessons rather
than motivational teaching (QCA 2004a). Research on pupils’ perspectives on geography lessons
also reveals that too much passive learning and a lack of variety in teaching approaches could put
pupils off geography at KS3 and KS4, with pupils appreciating more proactive, practical and varied
learning activities (Bidduph and Adey 2003; Biddulph and Adey 2004; Norman and Harrison 2004;
Westaway and Rawling (2001) suggest that the quality of teaching affects student choices at KS4,
that ‘satisfactory’ lessons at KS3 may not be enough to convince students to take geography at
GCSE. These authors also note that, despite improvements between KS3 and KS4, geography is
‘outperformed’ by history in terms of quality of teaching and student progress at KS4. Moreover,
as noted already, GCSE entry levels vary widely between schools. Factors identified as
contributing to higher levels of entry include: a reputation for successful teaching and good
examination results (the “school grapevine effect”), and specifications and/or approaches to
learning which allowed topical content to be covered and provided good quality fieldwork
experiences (QCA 2005; Weeden 2005; Westaway and Rawling 2001).
Teacher shortages, particularly for languages other than French, and problems with teacher
retention, have also been identified as serious issues for MFL (e.g. Aplin 1991; Fisher 2001; CILT
2005).8 Yet there is evidence that a good teacher, and a good student-teacher relationship, can
be a powerful influence on student attitudes. For instance, Clark and Trafford (1995) found that a
positive relationship with the teacher was more important than any other variable in influencing
pupils’ attitudes to the subject. Pupils appreciated qualities such as friendliness, professionalism
and an ability to make lessons lively. Similarly, Fisher (2001) found that, among the A-Level
linguists in her study, the teacher was of vital importance to their enjoyment or otherwise of the
GCSE course. Fisher suggests that the importance of pupil-teacher relationships is so important
in languages because of the communicative nature of the subject, which requires the teacher to
be able to communicate with and draw communication from pupils.
Research on subject preferences, however, suggests that languages are often among the least
preferred subjects (e.g. Stables and Wikeley 1999) and are, according to Williams et al. (2002)
seen as neither interesting or enjoyable. Fisher (2001) suggests that the issue is not so much that
pupils actively disliked languages, but more that other subjects were more enjoyable. She also
found that even when pupils liked the teacher, they often did not like what they were required to
do. These perceptions, it is suggested, could have a direct influence on both motivation and
subject choice (Fisher 2001, Williams et al. 2002).
Severe shortages of specialist teachers in mathematics have been widely reported (e.g. LMS
2004; Mathematical Association 2002a; Ofsted 2004b; Smith 2004; Watson 2005). For instance,
in a survey of about 400 schools QCA (2004b) found that about 20% of mathematics teachers did
not have a qualification in mathematics, and also that temporary contracts and vacancies were
common in a number of schools. This lack of specialists has been linked with ineffective
mathematics teaching. Furthermore, there have been criticisms of uninspiring and unimaginative
teaching. Ofsted (2004b) contend that teaching and learning styles in mathematics are limited
compared with other subjects, and that teachers often dictate too much instead of encouraging
pupils to find things out for themselves. Indeed, subject associations suggest that students can
be put off taking the subject at A-Level by rote learning and repetition in mathematics teaching up
to 16 (QCA 2004b).
Physics and Chemistry
There is a shortage of specialist teachers of physics and chemistry in many schools. Lipsett
(2004) sees this shortage of specialist teachers as a problem not only for A-Level teaching which
explicitly requires specialist knowledge, but also for GCSE even in the majority of schools which
In a debate in the House of Lords on 24 January 2005, Baroness Walmsley cited the most “recently
available figures” which indicated that 380 secondary teachers of modern foreign languages recruited to the
service in 1997 had left the service by 2003.
offer double award science. The physics and chemistry components of the double award GCSE
are, Lipsett argues, often taught by non-specialists who lack detailed subject knowledge and also
lack the enthusiasm necessary to inspire pupils to take the subject further.
4.2.2 Perceived difficulty
A second issue identified in the literature examined is that of perceived difficulty of these subjects.
Declining examination entries have been attributed to perceptions that geography, MFL,
mathematics, physics and chemistry are ‘difficult’ compared to others.
Evidence regarding the difficulty or otherwise of geography is mixed.9 On the one hand, there are
reports of anecdotal evidence that geography is perceived as the ‘easiest’ humanities subject at
GCSE (Westaway and Rawling 2001; QCA 2005). On the other hand, higher rates of entry for
Geography GCSE are found in “academic” schools which gain high GCSE results (QCA 2004a;
Weeden 2005). Also, quantitative evidence based on GCSE results (Stott et al. 1997) and
qualitative case study evidence from one school (Weeden 2005) suggests that the cohort which
opts for geography is weighted towards high achievers. Elements of difficulty identified by
teachers and students include the quantity of work involved, the requirement to think
independently and express opinions, and the need to use geographical terminology and concepts
(Biddulph and Adey 2003; QCA 2005; Weeden 2005).
Furthermore, it appears that elements of ‘difficulty’ such as the need to think independently may
put some pupils off, but appeal to others as a positive challenge (Biddulph and Adey 2003; QCA
2005). Thus the evidence available does not allow a firm conclusion on whether the perceived
difficulty of GCSE geography discourages students from pursuing the subject further at A-Level
(Westaway and Rawling 2001)
There is a much evidence that both teachers and students perceive languages as difficult.
Research reveals that pupils feel that innate ability in the subject is important, that you have to
be “good at languages” to succeed (Graham 2002; Stables and Stables 1995). Furthermore,
students have argued that a GCSE in a foreign language is more demanding than other GCSE
subjects, particularly in demands on concentration and memory (Clark and Trafford 1995), with
even the highest attaining students, including those who went on to take languages at A-Level,
finding MFL difficult compared with other subjects at GCSE (Fisher 2001). Researchers (Fisher
2001; Graham 2002) have also found a discrepancy between pupils’ internal perceptions of
This evidence on the perceived difficulty of geography relates mainly to GCSE.
progress or ability and their predicted or actual GCSE grade. Even pupils with a good grade at
GCSE did not feel competent in the language, perhaps owing to unrealistic expectations of fluency
Perceptions of difficulty appear to discourage students from taking languages at GCSE and
beyond. There is evidence that less academic students have been discouraged from taking
languages at GCSE and beyond, either through their own lack of confidence, or through school
timetabling and options arrangements and/or the careers advice they receive (Aplin 1991; Atlas
2003a; Atlas 2003b; CILT 2004c; QCA 2004c; Smith 2004). Difficulty was the most common
reason which the Year 11 students in Graham’s (2002) study gave for not wanting to continue
studying French beyond GCSE. Fisher (2001) suggests that students who may have considered
pursuing a language post-16 were “warned of the difficulty of the subject” by older students
already engaged in A-Level study, while Graham (2002) also found that year 12 pupils perceived
a big jump between elements of the GCSE course and A-Level study.
Mathematics, Physics and Chemistry
There have been persistent claims about the relative difficulty of mathematics and physical
science from pupils, teachers and professional associations. What is the research evidence for
these claims? Bell, Malacova and Shannon (2003) contend that mathematics AS and A-Level has
increasingly become the preserve of pupils with overall high levels of attainment (as represented
by GCSE results). Fitz-Gibbon (1999) argues, on the basis of a statistical analysis of A-Level
grades linked with prior attainment at GCSE, that it is more difficult to get a high grade in
Mathematics and science (and MFL) than in most other subjects, and that this indicates the
relative difficulty of these subjects. However, Goldstein and Cresswell (1996) highlight difficulties
in assessing “standards” and particularly in making comparisons between subjects and over time.
Whatever the technical issues over measuring standards and comparing the ‘difficulty’ or
otherwise of different subjects, many teachers and pupils evidently perceive mathematics and
science as particularly difficult. Pupils gave lack of self-confidence in ability in these subjects as a
key reason for not liking the subject at GCSE (Gallagher et al. 1997; Stables and Stables 1995;
Stables and Wikeley 1997), while students who disliked arts subjects tended to describe them as
boring and pointless rather than difficult (Gallagher et al. 1997). There is also a gender
dimension to these perceptions: for instance, some of the girls in Gallagher et al.’s (1997) study
perceived physics as a ‘male’ subject which boys were better at than girls. On the other hand,
QCA (2004b) attribute negative views of mathematics to the design of the GCSE qualification,
particularly the quantity of work involved and the three-tier structure,10 more than issues of ability
Perceptions of difficulty have been linked to declining or static A-Level entries in these subjects.
With reference to mathematics, QCA (2004b) suggest that students find the higher tier GCSE
harder than GCSE papers in other subjects which are not divided into tiers, and that this puts
them off progressing to A-Level. Furthermore, it has been argued that examination entries for
mathematics and science have suffered because pupils, sometimes with encouragement from
their teachers, have opted for ‘easier’ subjects in order to maximise A-Level examination scores
(e.g. ACME 2004; Fitz-Gibbon 1999, LMS 2003). On the other hand, Garratt (1986) found that the
perceived level of difficulty was the factor which had least influence on A-Level subject choice for
students taking science A-Levels.11
4.2.3 Curriculum and assessment design
Dated and content-heavy examination specifications, and a lack of curriculum time to cover these
specifications, have been identified by teachers as important factors in declining numbers (QCA
2004a). GCSE and AS/A-Level geography courses have not been subject to a full curriculum
review since the mid-1980s, and commentators (e.g. Rawling 1991) note that exciting
developments in the academic subject of geography in universities have not filtered down to the
school curriculum. A new geography GCSE with focus on cultural, social and economic geography,
and active learning approaches is currently being piloted (QCA 2005).
What light does research on pupils’ attitudes and decisions shed on this issue? Many researchers,
as noted above, see teaching processes as the most important factor in forming pupils’ attitudes
to geography. Norman and Harrison, on the other hand, note that “subject content, as much as
the mode of delivery,” is important to students (Norman and Harrison 2004, p.11)12 There is also
evidence that pupils dislike the tendency of GCSE and A-level courses to repeat topics from KS3
QCA has now introduced a two-tier structure for mathematics GCSE, for first teaching in 2006, on a similar
model to two-tier GCSEs in other subjects such as English and science. Students entered for the Foundation
Tier can achieve Grades C-G, those entered for the Higher Tier Grades A*-C. QCA (2006).
It should be noted that this study was conducted before examination league tables and the UCAS point
system were introduced.
This comment relates to Year 9 students.
Findings from the pilot GCSE are instructive. While most teachers welcomed the new style of
teaching and learning, there were concerns over the risks involved. Some teachers preferred to
stick to the well-resourced and familiar traditional specifications. There is a potential conflict,
therefore between pupils’ desire for new content, and teacher’s desire for continuity and
consistency of results (QCA 2005). The same report also noted a danger that exam papers and
assessment tasks could move away from the intended innovative content and approaches to
The content of the GCSE language curriculum has been criticised. Research indicates pupils’
frustration at a repetitive curriculum and the lack of a cultural dimension, and a feeling that what
they learned was unrealistic and mundane. Teachers also criticized a vocabulary-driven and
packed syllabus which left little time to practice new language or to use language for genuine
communication. As Clark and Trafford put it: “The communicative approach underpinning the
GCSE syllabus may all too often have given pupils merely an unsystematic, repetitive
acquaintanceship with undemanding, perhaps anodyne, transactional language” (Clark and
Trafford 1995, p.321; Fisher 2001).
There is a consensus in the literature examined that much mathematics teaching has been geared
to preparing students for examinations (Ofsted 2006). The emphasis on external assessment in
the subject has been seen to limit opportunities for enrichment or ensuring that pupils understand
and are able to manipulate mathematical concepts (LMS 2003; Watson 2004; Ofsted 2006), and
to undermine pupils’ enthusiasm for the subject (ACME 2005). Moreover, particular problems
have been identified with the three-tier design of mathematics GCSE. There is evidence that
schools can sometimes ‘play safe’ by entering some pupils who might have been capable of the
higher tier paper for the middle tier. This strategy ensures that, for school league table purposes,
the pupil can achieve a ‘good’ GCSE pass and avoids the risk of failure in the higher tier.
Nevertheless, some pupils could be stopped from progressing to A-Level. (e.g. Smith 2002; LMS
2003; QCA 2003).13
Physics and Chemistry
Ofsted (2004d) suggest that pupils are not motivated by the “heavily examination-oriented”
science GCSE curriculum. This finding is reinforced by research by Parkinson et al. (1998) found
that 13-14 year old pupils who had enjoyed practical work in science lessons felt less motivated
C is the top grade available for the middle tier paper.
when the level of practical work declined at KS4. The Applied Science GCSE, with a greater
practical focus, could potentially be more motivating (Ofsted 2004d).
4.2.4 Public image of the subject
The evidence evaluated highlights problems with the public image of geography. Lambert (2005)
and Rawling (2001) have noted a public perception of geography as a traditional, utilitarian
subject, involving low level learning about countries and natural landscapes, while Brown (2001)
suggests that geography lacks “street cred” with potential undergraduates. Moreover, the
evidence suggests that pupils see the utility of geography in a narrow way, limited to reading
maps, knowledge about countries that can be used when traveling. Pupils also link geography to
careers in a naïve way, seeing it as useful only for jobs in the travel industry (Adey and Biddulph
2001; Biddulph and Adey 2003; Biddulph and Adey 2004).
As with geography, the literature examined highlights pupil perceptions that languages are not
useful in employment, and misconceptions about the kind of employment opportunities open
through the study of languages (Atlas 2003a; Aplin 1991; Blenkinsop et al. 2006; Clark and
Trafford 2005; Graham 2002; Stables and Wikeley 1999; Williams et al. 2002). Misconceptions
are attributed to inadequate guidance from careers advisors or parents (Aplin 1991; Fisher 2001).
Graham (2002) also found that a perceived usefulness was among the most often mentioned
reasons given for not continuing with French post-16 (Graham 2002). Other studies, however,
found that students were aware of the importance of languages for employment, but saw other
subjects as more important for career progression (e.g. Fisher 2001; ATLAS 2003a; ATLAS
Another possible indication of a public image problem is the declining popularity of MFL over time
in subject preference studies (Colley, Comber and Hargreaves 1994a; Colley and Comber 2003;
Stables and Wikeley 1997; Wikeley and Stables 1999). There are also gender differences in
attitudes, with boys often found to be more negative than girls. Some researchers suggest that
boys may be put off by lack of male role models (Clark and Trafford 1995; Williams et al. 2002)
The influential Smith Report (Smith 2004) argued that young people were often perceived maths
as “boring and irrelevant”, and were unaware of the importance of mathematical skills for future
career options and advancement. QCA (2004b) concur that pupils do not see their mathematical
skills and knowledge as useful in themselves. Nevertheless, there is evidence that pupils are
aware that mathematics GCSE is important for progression to a university place or to employment
(Blenkinsop et al. 2006; QCA 2004b; Stables and Wilkeley 1999).
Physics and Chemistry
The evidence reviewed suggests that students perceived the career usefulness of physics and
chemistry, but are less aware of the significance of science in their everyday lives (Blenkinsop et
al. 2006; Parkinson et al. 1998). The research also suggests gender differences in attitudes.
Parkinson et al. (1998) found that boys had more positive attitudes to science than girls. The girls
who took part in research by Gallagher et al. (1997) and Garratt (1986) felt that boys were better
at physics than they were, and also that physics was appropriate for careers suited to boys more
than careers suited to girls.
The issues discussed so far have been pertinent to all subjects covered by this paper. The issues
which follow relate only to some subjects.
4.2.5. Government curriculum policy
The evidence reviewed suggests that geography, along with other subjects decoupled from the
compulsory national curriculum after 1995, have been squeezed as the time devoted to core
subjects has been increased to 70%. Brown (2001) argues that “geographers everywhere are alarmed
that this vital discipline is under attack, not as a deliberate policy, but by default, because the government’s
priorities are elsewhere.” Norman and Harrison (2004) suggest that geography is marginalized even before
KS4, with the emphasis on literacy and numeracy at KS3. These curriculum policies are seen as problematic
not so much in themselves but in combination with options and timetabling procedures in schools
(Walford 2000; QCA 2005). Nevertheless, we lack the evidence which allows us to argue that changes in
curriculum policy in themselves lead to changes in examination entries.
It has also been argued that the uptake of geography, along with other optional subjects at GCSE,
has been affected by the rise in the number of alternative subjects (Grimble and Mansell 2004;
QCA 2004a; Weeden 2005; Rawling 2001). This has been seen as a Bell’s (2001) quantitative
analysis of examination entries, however, reveals that students generally took more subjects in
1997 than they did in 1984. Westaway and Rawling (2001) suggested that the impact of pre-16
vocational qualifications (such as Part 1 GNVQ leisure and tourism) which could potentially attract
students who otherwise might have taken geography GCSE was probably limited, as the take up
of these vocational programmes was low. The greater opportunities to take alternatives to GCSE
through the Increased Flexibility Programme could potentially have a greater impact on GCSE
entries for geography and other optional subjects.
There has been a sharp decline in numbers taking GCSEs in French and German within a few months since
MFL was made an entitlement subject in September 2004. Teachers have suggested that making MFL
entitlement subject sent out negative message about its status (CILT 2005; QCA 2004c). Stables and
Wikeley (1999), however, noted a worsening of attitudes of 14-15 year old pupils in relation to subject
preference, and no real improvement in attitudes as to career usefulness, between 1984 and 1996 when MFL
was compulsory under the national curriculum.
4.2.6. Modular structure of post-16 qualifications
It has been argued that the modular structure of post-16 qualifications is a disadvantage for
subjects which are linear and cumulative in nature, such as mathematics and modern foreign
languages. Mathematics has been described as “cumulative and interconnected” and “intrinsically
interlinked”, and subject associations have argued that modular assessment tests only fragments
and does not provide the opportunities for practice and reinforcement which students need (LMS
2003; LMS 2005; Mathematical Association 2003c). This view was also expressed by mathematics
tutors who took part in focus groups conducted at HEIs as part of the work of the Nuffield Review.
Similarly, MFL has been described as a “sequential subject” (Clark and Trafford 1995). Although
modularity has been noted as a hindrance to effective learning in these subjects, there is no clear
evidence that this has a direct impact on examination entries. However, LMS (2005) suggest that
under the UCAS tariff system (where subjects are of equal worth), modular structure is damaging
for sequential subjects which depend on “second passes” and reinforcement more than other
4.2.7 Double Award science and progression to A-Level
The vast majority of pupils now take double award science at GCSE rather than single science
subjects. The advent of double award science means that many females now take chemistry and
science in a significant way to age 16 (subjects which were previously heavily male dominated)
(e.g. IoP 1999). However, problems with progression from Double Award GCSE to A-Level
science subjects have been noted. Science teachers have argued that the step in content from
GCSE to AS level was too big, especially for non-mathematicians (QCA 2004d). This view was
echoed by HE admissions tutors in our focus groups. That HE admissions tutors are concerned
about this could, if these views influence admissions decisions, prove a barrier for social inclusion
and widening participation, as take-up of single science is concentrated in selective schools.
4.2.8 Problems with the design of GCSE and AS-Level specifications
For some of the subjects examined, problems with the design of GCSE and AS-Level specifications
have been identified as a barrier to further progression in that subject. In the case of geography,
schools have expressed concerns that in the original AS specification under Curriculum 2000 there
was too much content to cover in the time available, and that this discouraged pupils to continue
to A-Level (QCA 2004a). For MFL, it has been argued that ‘teething problems’ with the revised
GCSE specifications, which were revealed in the sharp drop in the proportion of students getting
A*-C for the first cohort examined on the basis of the new specifications in 2003, was linked to
the sharp decline in GCSE entry levels in 2004. It has also been argued that the difficulty of AS
specifications could discourage students taking AS from progressing to A-Level. (QCA 2004c).
Criticisms of mathematics examination specifications have been particularly severe (and highly
publicized). The sharp decline in the number of A-Level candidates in 2002 was attributed to initial
problems with the design of the AS and A-Level mathematics specifications under Curriculum
2000. (Mathematical Association 2002a; QCA 2004b; Ofsted 2004b; Smith 2004). (Although
entries rose slightly in 2003 and 2004 they are still far below their 2001 level.) Much criticism has
been directed at AS specifications. ACME (2005) have argued that a rushed AS experience which
left students no time to consolidate or practice new techniques or to understand new concepts, as
reflected in poor results and high failure rates, deterred some students from taking the subject on
to a second year (See also Mathematics Association 2002b). Part of the problem also seems to be
with the transition between GCSE and AS/A-Level; it has been argued that the gap is too large
and that GCSE offers insufficient foundation in important techniques and concepts such as algebra
(Smith 2004; QCA 2004b). Also, as noted previously, it appears that students entered for the
middle tier exam of the three-tier mathematics GCSE may have trouble progressing to higher
levels of study in the subject.
5. The effects of changing patterns of subject take-up
What have commentators perceived to be the effects of the changing patterns of subject take-up
observed? These perceived effects are varied: from an impact on HE, to an impact on the ‘status’
of the subject as a whole, to an impact on the national economy and international
competitiveness, to social polarization.
Impact on higher education
There are complex economic and political reasons for the closure of university departments, but a
decline in the supply of students with appropriate qualifications has been seen by some
commentators as a major contributory factor in the closure of degree courses and university
departments (e.g. Smith 2006; McLeod 2004a; McLeod 2004b; Curtis 2005). Furthermore, focus
groups discussions conducted as part of the work of the Nuffield Review in a range of HEIs
revealed that chemistry, physics, and languages departments, even in highly selective
institutions, were often in ‘recruitment’ mode and admissions tutors said they found it hard to
attract candidates with the qualifications or other attributes which they desired.
Loss of the specific contribution to understanding the world which the subject could
QCA noted regarding geography that the decline in GCSE and A-Level entries could potentially
affect “the level of geographical understanding in the nation as a whole.” (QCA 2005 p.9) Brown
(2001) argued in a similar vein that declining take-up of the subject potentially depriving citizens
of skills and knowledge vital to an understanding of the world and for meeting future
environmental and political challenges. In the case of MFL it has been argued that a decline in
languages could lead to an inability to appreciate cultural diversity which is vital in a multi-cultural
society and a globalised world (e.g. NfER 2003).
Damage to the economy
Concerns have been expressed about the potential damage which a decline in numbers taking
mathematics and science subjects at Level 3 and above could inflict on the national economy.
This has been a mantra in successive government documents, for example the SET for success
report of 2002 (Roberts 2002). Similarly, it has been argued that a decline in numbers taking
languages will have a negative impact on country’s economic output and ability to do business
(Fisher 2001; QCA 2004c) and on the competitive position of individual applicants within a
European labour market.14
Language specialists and non-specialists alike raised this particular concern in focus groups with HEI
admissions staff conducted for the Nuffield Review.
Fears of polarisation have been noted particularly in relation to MFL. Given the evidence that MFL
is most likely to be optional in state schools, especially those in deprived areas, several
commentators are concerned that languages will again become elitist subjects and lose the broad
base which they attained under the national curriculum (QCA 2003; CILT 2004c; CILT 2005). In
addition, admissions tutors have expressed a preference for single subject science GCSEs over
double award for the purposes of progression to HE (Wilde et al., 2006). This could be a cause for
concern, as single science is concentrated in selective schools.
Three main points can be made in conclusion.
First, this examination has highlighted the importance of looking not only at the raw numbers of
examination entries as an indication of change over time. Clearly, headlines which only report the
number of examination entries in a subject (without reference to the total number of GCSE or A-
Level entries or the age cohort) could give a misleading impression.
Second, there are serious weaknesses in the evidence base which limit the strength of the
conclusions that can be drawn. Inconsistencies in methods of data-collection over time are
problematic for the construction and analysis of time-series data.
Third, the evidence examined has not provided robust causal explanations of declining or static
examination entries. This investigation has revealed common issues across the different subjects
examined. Nevertheless, many of the recurring issues raised (a restrictive curriculum and
assessment regime dominated by content rather than process, narrow teaching methods) have
been raised as concerns in relation to subjects generally perceived to be in a ‘healthier’ state
(including history and English). Some of these concerns appear to be part of the ‘system’ as a
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Appendix 1: GCSE entries disaggregated by gender
Chemistry GCSE entries (England) GCSE Chemistry entries as % of total entries
number of entries
% total entries
female 0.60 female
Physics GCSE entries (England) GCSE Physics entries as % of total entries
number of entries
% total entries 1.00
male 0.80 male
female 0.60 female
Double Award Science GCSE entries (England) GCSE Double Award Science entries as % of total
number of entries
200000 male 13.50
150000 female 13.00
1994 1995 1996 1997 1998 1999 2000 2001 2002 2003 2004
20 year year
Mathematics GCSE entries (England) GCSE Mathematics entries as % of total entries
number of entries
% total entries 12.50
200000 male male
150000 female female