The rise and fall of different GCSE subjects

By Eloise Benn

Unveiling the trends of subject popularity

Now that both GCSE and A-level results days have taken place and grades up and down the country have been discussed, many professionals are now shifting their attention back to subject entry data and what this means for the future of some subjects.

It has been particularly noted that, at GCSE level, subjects that fall under the arts category, such as music, drama, and art and design, have seen the largest decrease in student entries. With 5,905,000 entries for the summer 2023 GCSEs, 198,302 of these were for art and design subjects, a 3.6% decrease since last summer’s exams, which had 205,657 entries. Music, another huge decrease, dropped by 12.5% (32,980 candidates this summer compared to 37,705 in 2022) and drama too by 7.3% (53,116 candidates this summer compared to 57,308 in 2022).

Whilst the cause for these drops, which have been occurring since around 2010, cannot be narrowed down to just one definite reason, plenty of professionals and teaching staff have suggested that this may be a direct impact of the prioritisation of other subjects. For example, those that are described as more ‘academic’ and fall under the EBacc (English Baccalaureate). Introduced in 2010, the government’s EBacc subjects include English language and literature, maths, combined sciences, a modern or ancient foreign language, and either geography or history. The focus on this performance indicator comes from a government plan to ensure students leave secondary education with a specific set of academic qualifications with the belief that it would improve their prospects. This year, these subjects saw an increase of 3.9%.

Some teachers have suggested a correlation between the increase in EBacc entries and decrease in those for art and design, drama, music, and more. Many have also compared the difference in funding and provisions for art and design subjects to those part of the EBacc. It is possible that a large number of schools have had to spend less on other subjects and more in EBacc areas in order to meet government expectations. The lack of attention and funding for artistic qualifications could have possibly resulted in a lot of institutions simply not having the resources to deliver them efficiently or provide the best facilities, perhaps meaning that enough students aren’t able to, or are as interested in, choosing the subjects for GCSE. Consequently, some schools may not have the teaching resource to run very small classes, if at all.

Similarly, the decreasing number of young people taking these qualifications means that less are meeting the entry requirements to study them in sixth form or college at A-level. In summer 2022, there were 44,690 entries for art and design subjects whereas summer 2023 dropped to 43,464. Design and technology decreased by 7.5%, from 11,404 to 10,639, and drama saw a reduction of 7.5%, with 9,953 for summer 2022 and 9,200 for summer 2023.

On the other hand, these figures do not include BTEC entries. It could also be implied that part of this decrease may be student-led, with vocational qualifications, like BTEC Firsts, widely available across England, Wales and Northern Ireland. Perhaps some students are moving towards vocational education and are becoming more inclined to undertake their course in a more practical way

For a few years now, subjects like business studies and computing have been on the rise across both GCSE and A-level.

Subjects like business studies and computing have been on the rise across both GCSE and A-level

Spanish is growing so quickly that it has the potential to overtake French as the most popular language taken at GCSE level

Though it is somewhat unclear why business studies in particular has risen, computing can likely be associated with not only our everchanging society, but its addition to the EBacc in 2015. Since summer 2021, computing GCSE has grown from 81,120 in summer 2022 to 90,558 in summer 2023 – marking an 11.6% increase. It grew hugely for A-level too; its entry numbers increased by 16.6% from 15,693 to 18,306. This has made it the fastest-growing STEM subject.

With technology constantly changing and the IT job sector expected to continue growing enormously over the years to come, it is no surprise that computing has had an insurgence of entrants. More and more young people are becoming more interested in studying computers, technology, AI, and other evolving areas that are sure to be very present in their future.

Seemingly a growing field for students, this summer saw business studies become one of the largest subject entry increases, moving from 107,283 to 123,166 (14.8%) at GCSE, and 15,693 to 18,306 (16.6%) at A-level.

Like computing, perhaps it is students’ engagement outside of the classroom that is piquing their attention. A lot of young people are picking up and learning the online and digital skills needed to run their own businesses, especially online. They are often exposed to this industry through social media platforms like TikTok, receiving useful tips and tricks, and encouragement to be innovative and give it a go. Due to a lot of accessible, online software, nowadays it is much easier for anyone to create a business from their home, and perhaps it is this knowledge and accessibility, paired with the motivation gained from other young people who are showing the successful side to this field through social media, that has driven up student interest. Additionally, the subject’s exploration of different aspects of business, such as human resources, marketing, management, and more, means that it likely encapsulates many areas of interest, linking to future career aspirations. It also acts as a useful link towards particular A-level subjects too, like economics, which are popular amongst sixth form and college students.

This summer, Spanish GCSE grew hugely too with an 11.3% increase. Last year, there were 112,845 entries whereas there were 125,651 this time. In fact, Spanish is growing so quickly that it has the potential to overtake French as the most popular language taken at GCSE level.

A range of different reasons have been suggested for this, including culture and tourism as well as young people’s ability to pick up the language. It is widely known that Spain itself is one of the most popular holiday destinations for UK families, and it is for this reason that some professionals have suggested that students may be more inclined to learn it so that they can better communicate when abroad in the country. Exposure to Spanish and Latin America culture through television and music has been another suggestion. Others have thought that the grammar and vocabulary of Spanish may be more attractive and easier to learn as a beginner, drawing in new speakers.

The language of many different countries and already the most popular language taken at A-level, Spanish continues to grow in popularity amongst other languages like German which are predicted to continue decreasing, and French which has appeared to rise and fall over the past couple of years.

Overall, it is clear that subjects associated with being more creative are suffering from continuous declines, whether that be because of lack of interest, pressure that schools may be facing, the undertaking of other types of qualifications, or other reasons.

The decreases and data have been recognised as worrisome by many, who cannot help but wonder what this means for not only the future of these qualifications in school, but also creative industries and our culture. It is possible that, without young people having the opportunity to explore these areas in their formative years, creative industries, like graphic design, visual arts, performing arts, and more, will be at a disadvantage when it comes to the job market as there will be less people meeting the necessary requirements for roles.

However, this data follows the recent news of the government’s appointment of a new panel to promote cultural education within schools. With plans to work with a variety of creative and cultural organisations, including the Royal Shakespeare Company and the Royal Society of Arts, for example, the panel seeks to ensure that pupils benefit from an exciting curriculum that explores music, art, and more.

Like computing, perhaps it is students’ engagement outside of the classroom that is piquing their attention.

So, although various non-EBacc qualifications are currently declining, the implementation of government initiatives may be set to change this in the future.

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