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English A-level1 is in steady decline. In England, student numbers have dropped from 83,000 in 2013 to 54,000 in 2023. Research involving teachers suggests that the current GCSE specifications and excessive school performance measures, leading to the ‘bleeding down’ of GCSE texts into key stage 3 (Goodwyn, 2020; NATE, 2020), have affected student choices of A-levels. Yet what was lacking, until recently, was the voices of students to explain why they may (or may not) choose A-level English, and what influences their choices. In this blog post, I present results from a small-scale, qualitative study that took place in spring 2022 across 10 diverse schools, that brought students’ voices to the fore. We interviewed 67 students, 33 in Yr11 who were choosing their A-level options, and 34 in Yr12 who had just begun their A-level study.

Experiencing English

For the students participating in this study, the main purposes and benefits of studying English were developing meaning, literacy and criticality, and having space to develop their own voice. They appreciate that engaging with a range of texts enables greater understanding of perspectives and contexts: ‘Literature can open people’s eyes’ (Yr11 Student). This was frequently felt to be a reciprocal relationship: ‘You have to offer yourself when you’re reading a book’ (Yr12 Student), indicating their recognition of the broader personal development that studying English offers.

‘Most [participating students] felt there was a significant difference from their key stage 3 experience which they had enjoyed more [than their overall GCSE experience], as KS3 English lessons were more creative and covered a greater range of texts.’

However, while most had positive memories of their GCSE English courses overall, they felt there was a significant difference from their key stage 3 experience (ages 11–14), which they had enjoyed more, as KS3 English lessons were more creative and covered a greater range of texts. The rigidity and lack of creativity of the GCSE appeared to impact negatively on their views of the subject:

‘[At GCSE, there’s no time to] let us think and interpret the text for ourselves.’ (Yr11 Student)

‘If [the GCSE exam] were open book it would be less dependent on our memorising and more … on our opinion.’ (Yr12 Student)

This meant that some students who used to enjoy English before GCSE study decided against English at A-level.

Dialogic engagement in English lessons

Students felt that a passionate, knowledgeable English teacher, able to foster engagement and discussion, was essential. They saw ‘good’ lessons as comprising relatable content – or content made relatable – involving interesting texts and creative elements. The role of discussion was frequently mentioned, students seeing it as essential to opening up different interpretations and perspectives, and they appreciated the open-endedness that this collaboration engendered:

‘So much of it stems from discussion and from talking to each other. The exchange of ideas, thoughts, and then … you’ll put your idea out there and everyone will work together to develop it. That’s – that’s the beauty.’  (Yr12 Student)

One of the consequences of the Covid-19 lockdowns was the loss of discussion during online learning, which has had a lasting negative impact on their experience of studying English.

Choices and influences

The principal influences on students’ choice of A-level subjects were their families, teachers and peers. Some self-identified as ‘readers’, which they felt essential in continuing with further study of English. Key reasons cited by those choosing to study English at A-level were that it is enjoyable, develops transferable skills, and is a facilitating subject for Russell Group universities.

However, while some enjoyed the notion that there are no definitive answers in English, others felt that the absence of ‘right’ answers was off-putting and unsettling.

Another negative influence was the favouring of STEM subjects by schools and wider society, with several participants feeling there didn’t appear to be a clear career path for students of English compared to other subjects:

‘STEM subjects seem to be more encouraged, and you are shown how those could turn into an actual career.’ (Year 11 Student)

‘[An] English [degree] has a dead-end feeling to it.’ (Yr12 Student)

Some also felt that English is a female subject, attracting more female teachers and students, with texts studied more appealing to women. While students recognised this inherent stereotyping, it did impact negatively on the perception of English studies, particularly for boys.

Some conclusions

Consideration of what is taught in the secondary English curriculum, and how, would address some of the issues highlighted. A greater diversity of texts at GSCE, taught more flexibly, would be a good start, allowing English teachers to share their passion, engage their students and foster discussion in lessons.

As a discipline, English should challenge the dominant narrative that STEM is the only route to a lucrative career: English graduates have multiple options. Subject English broadens horizons, develops empathy and enables critical thinking. There are at least 18 reasons for ‘doing English’.

1 English Advanced (A) levels include English Literature, English Language, and Literature & Language, with ‘Eng Lit’ by far the most popular.


Goodwyn, A. (2020). The state of English: NATE’s annual survey. Teaching English, 24, 29–32.

National Association for the Teaching of English [NATE]. (2020). The decline in student choice of A level English. Teaching English, 24, 24–28.