We must take care not to devalue a subject that helps us build a more rounded and healthier body politic
Another summer, another dispiriting announcement for English teachers: according to the admissions service Ucas, a third fewer 18-year-olds have applied to study the subject at university this year than in 2012. English academics are beginning to lose their jobs, while one university has paused provision altogether.
Those who teach the subject know why: a championing of science degrees instead of “dead-end courses” (in Gavin Williamson’s widely condemned formulation earlier this year) that has emphasised supposedly superior employability; a galloping instrumentalisation of education; and an alienating set of curriculum reforms. A primary school emphasis on linguistic terminology and an unintuitive approach to sentence construction, brought in under the English graduate Michael Gove, is taken through to GCSE, where coursework and spoken language elements were removed along with popular options in 20th-century American literature and drama. A rise in rote learning has been noted, along with a decline in interest in pupils’ own responses to great literature. The conversion rate from A-level to degree level, 14%, has not changed – underlying the decline in university applications is a slump in the number taking English A-levels.