Facilitating subjects are at the ‘heart’ of student learning
At Wellington College, which has improved from 256th to 21st at A-level over the last nine years, ‘difficult’ subjects including maths, science and languages have been at the heart of our transformation. Our students know that the top universities that they aspire to attend require these core academic subjects.
The numbers opting for these subjects nationally have been on the increase since 2010, with the largest rise being in maths and the physical sciences. In contrast, numbers taking modern languages have been in decline, in part because of the perception of the difficulty of achieving A*s in these subjects.
Adjustments have now been made, and more top grades are being awarded, though the damage has been done. The country badly needs those who are fluent in overseas languages, including Mandarin.
Students need to think very carefully next week when confirming their A-level choices after hearing their GCSE results. They might be very tempted to opt for a variety of ‘soft’ subjects like general studies, sociology and law, but they should be under no doubt that if they want to study an academic subject at one of the country’s leading universities, they might find themselves not receiving even offers.
Universities like these top subjects for a host of very good reasons. Core academic subjects like physics, English, economics, history and maths require intense study and genuine ability. Students will need to work hard throughout the two years if they are to have any hope of achieving the top grades.
Photo: Graham Jepson
In all these core subjects, students need to think deeply and analytically. Studying them improves the quality of their minds, and will make them better students at university, and more thoughtful in the workplace.
So 20 years as a head, and my understanding of the university sector where I am just about to become a vice-chancellor, have convinced me about the importance of deep learning in traditional subjects in the sixth form. End of story? Absolutely not.
Surveys repeatedly show us that while traditional academic subjects are an absolutely necessary part of a proper education, they are not a sufficient part if we are to turn out fully rounded young people, able to make the most of their university life and the world beyond.
They need young people who can think creatively, work collaboratively, and possess a range of personal qualities.
I strongly recommend thus including a third or fourth subject that is creative and engages a very different part of the student’s mind.
Consider taking art, dance, or physical education. This is one of the joys of the International Baccalaureate which is offered by many state and independent schools. Because it offers six rather than the traditional three subjects at A-level, students are able to take a creative subject as well as others outside their core areas of interest which will challenge their minds and personalities.
Even if a student is taking just three traditional subjects at A-level, they must still try to push themselves in the arts, service and sport outside the classroom. Finally, a particular prejudice of mine, do not take vocational A-levels like law or accounting.
If you want to be a lawyer or an accountant, sitting the traditional academic subjects will make you much better at your job.
Anthony Seldon is the former Master of Wellington College and becomes vice-chancellor of University of Buckingham next month
Source: Facilitating subjects are at the ‘heart’ of student learning
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