Students are being put at a disadvantage by a narrow A-level system that is no longer “fit for purpose”, a leading scientist has said.
The UK is at risk of falling behind other nations by holding on to the qualifications, which encourage teenagers to specialise in a small number of subjects, according to Sir Venki Ramakrishnan, president of the Royal Society.
The Nobel Prize-winning biologist called for a major shake-up to allow sixth-formers to study a wide range of academic and vocational subjects.
In a speech, Sir Venki said that research commissioned by the Royal Society has shown that students are taking fewer A-levels, with the average number of A-level qualifications per student now standing at 2.7.
“Students are also taking a narrower mix of subjects, with, for example, more students taking exclusively STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) subjects, without any learning in other subject areas seen as key for a broader and more flexible skill set,” he said.
“And this concentration of STEM learning is seeing the size of the pool of young people with good scientific thinking and skills shrink; less young people overall are studying a science at A-level.”
“The UK risks falling behind its global competitors as a result of maintaining a narrow, outdated model of post-16 education.”
He adds: “Our narrow education system which encourages early specialisation, is no longer fit for purpose in an increasingly interdisciplinary world.”
“Many countries have moved, or are moving, towards a broader and more diverse curriculum in order to equip the next generation with a skill set they will need.”
Under the current system, students now typically take around three A-levels.
Previously, students often took around four AS-levels, deciding after one year of study when they gained their results, which of these to continue and which to drop. AS-levels have now been hived off to form a standalone qualification and no longer count towards A-level grades.
Sir Venki said there should not just be concerns about science, maths and computing.
“Young people need to expand their language skills so that they can, in the future, express the complex ideas of their field of study or work,” he said.
“It is also said that those who know little of history are doomed to repeat it.
“A narrow approach to education is producing students who are entering higher education without the necessary skills required for independent learning and research, or the ability to write and communicate.”
The biologist said there should be a move to a broader curriculum in the long-term, adding that in the meantime the UK could learn from A-level alternatives such as the International Baccalaureate (IB), which sees sixth-formers studying a wider range of subjects.
He added that there needed to be less “snobbery” around vocational qualifications.
“Our education system is too focused on producing narrow specialists,” Sir Venki said.
“It cannot make sense to focus on equipping students only for specialised careers, including becoming academics themselves.
“Career paths are becoming more flexible and we need to change expectations of what a person’s ‘career’ – or perhaps ‘careers’ is more accurate – will look like.
“Of course we need specialists and academics but businesses need employees with a broad range of skills and experience that can help them to creatively adapt to technology-rich environments.
“And young people need that range of skills so that they can move between careers.
“This is a difficult journey, which requires careful coordination.”
A spokesman for the UK’s Department for Education said: “We have reformed A-levels to create world-class qualifications that prepare young people for higher education and employment. They were developed in consultation with subject experts, higher education institutions and teachers.”
“This year’s results saw more entries in core subjects like maths and increasing entries to the science, technology and engineering subjects. This will help more young people access higher education so they can go on to secure well-paid jobs, compete on the global jobs market and boost the British economy.”